Members of Faith Missionary Baptist Church of Christ in East Palo Alto celebrate National Night Out (Tonya Mosely/KQED)
It's National Night Out in East Palo Alto, and Mayor Larry Moody hops into police Cmdr. Jerry Alcaraz's black SUV. They've got a busy night ahead -- several blocks in the city are having parties. Their first stop is the Light Tree Apartments off Highway 101.
It's the first time Alcaraz is attending a block party at Light Tree, an affordable housing complex. Back in the day, he says, it was not a place where police were welcome.
“I don’t want to say it’s weird being here, but 10 to 15 years ago I wouldn’t have expected Light Tree would be hosting a National Night Out,” Alcaraz says on the evening of Aug. 1.
In 1992, East Palo Alto had the highest homicide rate in the country. Forty-two people were murdered that year. Now, 25 years later, the city is boasting another milestone: For the first time in two decades, the murder rate so far this year is zero.
And that change is evident at Light Tree. In the '90s and early 2000s, Light Tree was known as a major spot where people would come to buy drugs. There were constant reports of gunshots. When police showed up, Alcaraz says few people were willing to talk to them.
“It was one of those things where we rarely drove our patrol vehicles in here," he says. "We would park on the outside and walk in."
These days the scene at Light Tree is altogether different. Alcaraz and Moody drive right into the complex. As the mayor walks toward a crowd of families eating pozole and barbecue, he's greeted with warm smiles and tight hugs.
"Hey young man, you play ball?" Moody yells out to a teenager walking toward the food line. The two strike up a conversation, and as they part ways, the mayor suggests the young man check out the YMCA.
"They've got so much going on there," Moody says. "They will even help you with your studies. You should check it out!"
Some people describe East Palo Alto in the '80s and early '90s as almost feeling like a war zone.
But the city hit a tipping point after East Palo Alto police aggressively began efforts to break up the gangs that had infested the city. In 2014, 16 people from three East Palo Alto gangs were indicted on murder and other charges.
"We became a community that was sick and tired of being sick and tired," Moody says. "We didn’t want to continue to accept the fact that children could be killed in East Palo Alto and nobody cared.”
But Alcaraz is hesitant about being too self-congratulatory.
“There’s no way the crime rate would have dropped just because of the police," Alcaraz says.
He says the community stepped up. They report crimes more often and are willing to talk to the police. He shares a story of investigating a crime that recently happened in the city. Alcaraz says that by the time he got back to the police precinct, he had received calls from witnesses and neighbors offering information.
"That rarely happened years ago," he says.
And then there is Facebook. Six years ago, the social media giant built its headquarters at the edge of East Palo Alto in the neighboring city of Menlo Park.
The move has sparked a steady stream of growth for the city. A Target store recently opened in the city’s core, Amazon will soon open a new office, and several commercial and residential developments are in the works.
While Moody believes gentrification has had some impact on crime rates, it's not the whole story. According to U.S. Census data, the median income and education level for residents in East Palo Alto hasn't shifted much in the last 17 years.
Roberto Mendoza was born and raised in East Palo Alto. He also raised his children here. He says he's glad the neighborhoods are safer, but the accelerating gentrification poses new challenges.
“We feel pushed out in some sorts," Mendoza says. "What’s going to happen to the lower-income families? Like ourselves?”
Moody says the city is working on bringing affordable housing through public/private partnerships. And he believes the steep murder rate decline is a significant sign that this small but robust city is headed in the right direction.
And with that, Moody and Alcaraz wave goodbye and head to the next block party.