Using the hashtag #panthershit, J. T. Faraji, a social activist and artist from East Palo Alto (EPA), California, tweeted about a local “Free Omelette [sic] Breakfast” (Faraji 2020). The tag #panthershit highlighted the powerful influence of the Black Power movement continues to have in shaping EPA’s history of community activism and solidarity, and demonstrates how local Black Power movements are memorialized and redeployed to address current needs (Joseph 2010; Taylor 2016). Beyond memorialization, the tweet’s message—“We are from East Palo Alto, someone needs to talk about this!”—proclaimed the continued right to the city of EPA’s Black, Latiné, and Pacific Islander residents (Harvey 2008).
This assertion is grounded in the contested nature of the community’s location, bounded by Meta/Facebook and Alphabet/Google on its northern and southern borders. The city’s commercial areas and residential neighborhoods have become a new frontier with residents facing increasing pressures of dispossession, gentrification and hyperdevelopment triggered by the city’s location in Silicon Valley (Cutler 2015; Har 2017; Koseff 2013). This transformation of EPA’s landscape has occurred alongside significant demographic shifts. EPA transformed from a majority-Black city (around 80%) in the late 1960s to a multiracial community by 2020 (Black: 15.6%; Latiné: 61.1%; AAPI : 10.9%; White: 7.2% – sources: City of East Palo Alto [n.d.]; Cutler 2015).
Local activists have strategically embraced a renewed Black Power spatial imaginary (#panthershit): a set of “solidarities within, between, and across spaces,” embedded in the rhetorical commitments of the Black Power movement, that privileges the “use value” of Black (in the case of EPA, non-white and working-class) homes and spaces over their exchange value; and a set of policy commitments that privileges the public good over private interests (Lipstiz 2007). EPA’s Black Power spatial imaginary is based on an ongoing historical memorialization of its Nairobi era: the deployment of certain rhetorical aspects of the Black Power movement such as community recognition and inclusion; and the active testimony of community elders, Black and Brown citizen-activists, who act as collective memory keepers.
The contestation over the proposed development of a former Black Power site, the Nairobi Shopping Village (later renamed Four Corners) shows how a locally rooted Black Power spatial imaginary is being used to develop solidarity across the city’s Black, Latiné and Pacific Islander communities over issues such as gentrification, displacement, houselessness, police violence and educational dispossession. The recent speculative wave of development in EPA serves as a cautionary note; it has also been the case that this Black Power spatial imaginary has been transformed into a form of Black Power simulacrum used to justify and rationalize new ways of displacing and dispossessing the city’s remaining Black, Latiné and Pacific Islander residents (Summers 2019).
Creating Nairobi: “Uhuru Na Umoja” (“Freedom and Unity”)
In 1968, Black youth spearheaded a vote to change East Palo Alto’s name to Nairobi, as a way to transcend EPA’s postwar history of segregation and inequality (Caldwell 1968). The Nairobi movement aimed to develop a new Black Power spatial imaginary reflecting EPA’s role as a node in the Bay Area’s Black Power landscape (Black Panther Party 1972; Rickford 2016). Nairobi Shopping Center, along with an Afrocentric day school and junior college, was one of the community’s most visible symbols of EPA’s Nairobi era (Davies 1969).
The development of the Center was led by a coalition of local Black activists who aimed to instantiate a distinctive and vibrant Black sense of place for community—“Uhuru Na Umoja” (“Freedom and Unity”). Nairobi offered spaces for small retailers, soul-food restaurants, a cooperative grocery store, cultural groups, nonprofits, and the community’s first permanent branch of the county library. This vision of autonomous Black sense of place was complicated; local tech philanthropists and the Nixon administration’s Black Capitalism programs funded the Center along with other Nairobi-branded entities (Baradaran 2019; Stegner 1970). Nonetheless, Nairobi Village was a visible testament of a new East Palo Alto controlled by and for Black residents.
By the late 1970s, due to cuts in state and federal funding, Nairobi Village slowly declined. EPA would become the center of Silicon Valley’s drug trade by the early 1990s, earning it the brief title of “murder capital of the nation” (Warren 1993) The semi-abandoned site stood in the crosshairs of California’s expansive war on drugs and its carceral logic of punitive clearance and banishment (Gilmore 2007; Roy 2017). The Center was identified as a hotspot whose demolition would clear the neighborhood of “undesirable elements,” and was bulldozed in 1987. Now dubbed Four Corners, the empty site passed through multiple owners and stalled development proposals over the next three decades. Other Black Power spaces, including EPA’s closed majority-Black high school and its small downtown of Whisky Gulch, were demolished and redeveloped as the city attempted to find financial stability (Kahan 2014).
Post-Nairobi and the neoliberal moment
An urgent need for an alternative spatial imaginary can be understood against the backdrop of the 2008 Great Recession, the subprime mortgage crisis, and the financialization of the city’s multifamily housing stock (Koseff 2013). EPA became one of the Bay Area’s epicenters, with a wave of foreclosures displacing the city’s working-class residents (Kane 2010; Har 2017). Some EPA residents moved into RVs  in order to remain in the city and close to schools and jobs (Fladeboe 2018). A severe lack of affordable housing caused many more families to leave, forcing the local school district to close several elementary schools (Swartz 2023). The expansion of the Facebook/Meta campus headquarters, and its troubling private contribution of millions of dollars of subsidies to local police forces to police areas adjacent to its campus, further contributed to the displacement and gentrification pressures (Bradshaw 2018; Emerson 2019; Kelly 2018; Streitfeld 2018).
The city’s multifamily housing was also in danger. By 2008, one company—Page Mill Properties—controlled a large stock of EPA’s apartment buildings, which included over half (1,800 units) of the city’s rent-regulated affordable housing units. The company would lose this portfolio in foreclosure to Wells Fargo Bank (Bernstein-Wax 2009), which in turn sold the properties to Sand Hill Property Company and its partner, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority fund (Donato-Weinstein 2016). Sand Hill, like Page Mill would act as a “predatory equity” landlord, whose purchase of the properties was premised on the displacement/eviction of existing tenants, engaging in limited renovations to justify higher rents, and initiating multiple lawsuits challenging the city’s tenant-protection/rent-control laws (Gittelsohn and Perlberg 2014; Kazak 2009; Tenants Together [n.d.]).
The refashioning of a Black Power spatial imaginary became an attractive tool for local activists, providing an inspirational form of resistance against the forces of displacement and disempowerment. This reincarnated spatial imaginary was accomplished via formal commemorations of the Nairobi era, from older residents eager to document earlier struggle. Black Power spatial imaginary via the invocation of Nairobi, allowed younger residents from EPA’s disparate communities to make the common case that, since EPA was born out of Black and Brown struggle and everyday life, members of these communities had a collective right to the city. Social media, particularly, became the new home of EPA’s Black diaspora. On Facebook pages, a new counter-history and archive of EPA and its Black Power spatial imaginary emerged.
Invoking Nairobi: fashioning resistance to hyperdevelopment
The pressures of hyperdevelopment and racialized displacement and inequality reemerged in 2019 when Sand Hill Property Company paid $42 million for the 6.1‑acre (2.5-hectare) Nairobi Village/Four Corners site (Dremann 2019). The purchase triggered several years of community review and engagement. Community activists, invoking EPA’s Black Power spatial imaginary, pushed Sand Hill to include a number of community benefits including city-mandated community spaces as well as affordable housing. In its final proposal, the Sand Hill project, now known as “University and Bay,” agreed to abide by five core principles: “(1) respect what came before us; (2) create a vibrant, mixed-use Main Street; (3) create places to live and gather; (4) improve mobility and access; (5) create jobs and local revenue.”
The invocation of “respecting the past” and providing a sense of place and economic opportunity drew directly from activists’ deployment of the EPA Black Power spatial imaginary. The company noted in one community presentation titled “What We Learned: History” (“Qué hemos aprendido: la Historia”) that an “Acknowledgement of History” was necessary; especially of “specific cultural histories,” particularly “from the 1970s–1980s.” As a result, the company’s website and its community meeting materials specifically referenced the spatial history of the site as home of Nairobi Village, with images of the Center as well as local activists. Further community meetings revealed a “[d]esire for a place that is uniquely EPA… a place to promote the city’s culture with local storytelling” and a “[n]eed for spaces for community building.” In response, the company agreed to deploy place markers such as a “civic landmark tower” and a “mural to be designed by a local artist.” These acknowledgements seem small compared to the small businesses and community groups based in Nairobi Village. Sand Hill seems to benefit the most from this tradeoff. While offering 180 units of mixed-income housing, the company has proposed building 500,000 square feet (46,500 m²) of life sciences/laboratory space. The redeveloped site would radically restructure a neighborhood of single-family homes into a “vibrant, mixed-use ‘downtown’.”
While the deployment of EPA’s Black Power spatial imaginary made symbolic as well as real concessions to EPA’s remaining communities of color, it seems that its new actors—speculative developers, predatory equity, and tech companies—have benefited the most from these contested spatial imaginaries. Facebook, as well as much of the tech industry’s own self-conception as enlightened and diverse, allowed itself to see EPA’s Black Power past not as an uncomfortable reminder of present-day inequalities, but rather as a symbol of their commitment to diversity. For these new tech adjacent residents, the evocation of Nairobi and the Black freedom struggle would allow for what the geographer Brandi Summers has called the “aesthetics of Blackness,” granting the new East Palo Alto of Sand Hill and Facebook an imprimatur of progressivism, authenticity, and “cool” necessary to create a “vibrant, mixed-use community” backed by a billion-dollar budget (Summers 2019). Facebook/Meta was one of the first of these entities to deploy these new Black Power simulacra, even as its primary social media tool—Facebook—became part of the memorialization of the Nairobi era.
Nevertheless, as Faraji’s #panthershit tweet suggests, the invocation of Nairobi, of a Black Power imagery of a united and cohesive community pressing for inclusion, equality, material well-being, and communal safety continues to strike a deep chord—no matter that the reality of the past didn’t match the hopes of the present. The spatial imaginary of Nairobi (or #panthershit) offers a powerful means to demand recognition and redress of community needs.
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