Community Problems and Citizen Help

While touring two vastly different areas of the Bay area last month, GOVERNING's photographer found that both communities have problems and depend on citizens and activists to resolve them.
by | May 18, 2010

I spent a day touring Palo Alto last month, taking pictures for Josh Goodman's story about California high-speed rail. I was in the company of a few of the locals who had volunteered to show me around their beautiful town. Just one day earlier, I was touring the Tenderloin district in San Francisco, documenting the rough conditions that its residents put up with every day, and the efforts of the police and the citizenry to make it better. Just 34 miles separate the Tenderloin and Palo Alto, but it may as well be 1,000 miles. It is hard to imagine two communities in the United States with less in common.

The police cannot possibly clean up the Tenderloin alone. It will also take the efforts of many community activists and concerned citizens. The streets and sidewalks are literally full of people with serious problems, some of their own making and some not. But many of them need help.

Palo Alto Train Track

Palo Alto, it turns out, has problems of its own. But because its problems are not so evident as they are in the Tenderloin, it is tempting to think there are no problems at all. But living in a pretty college town with a high standard of living and a low crime rate is no insurance against trouble.

When California builds a high-speed rail line between San Diego and Sacramento, it will probably go right through Palo Alto, along the route now used by the commuter trains that regularly speed through today. Sadly, young people had been committing suicide on those tracks at an alarming rate. Just one suicide would be alarming. But they come one after the other, and the people of Palo Alto are at a loss as to why.

A group of concerned citizens formed Track Watch in November 2009. Its members monitor the train tracks, keeping an eye out for trouble, trying to do more than their share to help those who need it. During my tour I saw a single tattered wooden chair (left), up against a pole near a crossing. That is where members of Track Watch take turns sitting, waiting for signs of something wrong, trying to stop another tragedy.

Everywhere, there are those who need help, and those who step forward to give it. The fact that they don't always succeed doesn't seem to stop them.

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