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By Jay Thorwaldson

Unraveling history?s mysteries, building community memory

Uploaded: Jun 21, 2006

Earlier this month I talked about things I didn't know.

Speaking to nearly 120 longtime Palo Altans -- including many present and former civic leaders -- at the annual dinner of the Palo Alto Historical Association, I outlined some local mysteries of history -- stuff I've heard rumors about but to which I never have been able to get a definitive answer.

I also announced a $10,000 grant from Hewlett Packard Corporation to fund the beginning of a "community memory enhancement" project I first thought about in 1980 -- long before technology was ready for it. My own schedule and the busy schedules of others in town with whom I talked about it have prevented it taking form in recent years.

But now's the time to begin, and with the HP grant -- more will be needed from other sources later, of course -- to help pay for clerical, organizing and some writing assistance, perhaps now we can begin compiling a truly detailed account of the past half century in Palo Alto and surrounding communities in the Midpeninsula.

The idea is simply to use the power of the Internet -- the most powerful communications tool in history this side of the invention of the printing press in the 1500s and, arguably perhaps, the telephone in the late 1800s.

Starting with some core documents and a timeline, people in the community could build a searchable, linkable database that would instantly tell people what "government by referendum" meant as a description of local politics in the late 1950s and early 1960s, or what a "residentialist" is, or who really saved the foothills and started the local environmental movement.

That way there will be fewer mysteries of history that leave new City Council and city staff members vulnerable to getting tangled up in the roots and tendrils of old issues about which they have no clear notion.

My first example of a community mystery is a rumor I initially picked up when I was covering Palo Alto for the former Palo Alto Times back in the late 1960s and 1970s. That rumor was that when the sprawling subdivisions were being proposed to replace the open fields and dairy farms of south Palo Alto the city staff recommended requiring the developers to bring in several feet of fill to bring it up above flood levels, say three or four feet.

The second part of the rumor is that developer Joseph Eichler went down and berated the council about that expensive proposition, and the condition was removed. I have no idea if any of that's true, and it would take some detailed detective work to go back through council minutes of a half century ago to find out, if it was even included in the minutes at the time.

Had it been done, I noted, the $28 million in flood damage in early 1998 might have been, say, about $28. But the rumor never included what mountain would have had to disappear to raise all of south Palo Alto above flood levels. Maybe they should have just required four-foot-high foundations for all the houses.

I'm most interested initially in aspects of history that current leaders SHOULD know about. Had city officials been more aware of the intensity of the battle in 1965 to create the city's Park Dedication Ordinance, perhaps the blowup of two or three years ago about swapping park lands at Rinconada Park, Terman Park and Mitchell Park could have been handled with more delicate diplomacy and avoided a blow-up.

But that's not a true "mystery." The history is there. But it's hard to access.

The Weekly published a great Centennial History of Palo Alto's first 100 years in 1994. Earlier, former PA Times journalist Ward ("Dode") Winslow (who was my boss for a time on the Editorial Pages), compiled a great history-of-Palo-Alto book, to which former Mayor Gary Fazzino and I contributed an early version of the chapter on city politics and I drafted a chapter on the history of health care.

But books by definition have limited space, and we're in a new era -- the Age of Googling -- in which people expect near-instant access to information. And they should have such access.

Any newcomer to city and school issues deserves -- no, needs -- to know what went before if they have any sensibility to community traditions or if they want to avoid potential land mines that can blow up in their faces, embarrass them and often frustrate what they are trying to accomplish.

For those who have been participants in slices of local history, this is an opportunity to share recollections, challenge (civilly, please) the remembrances of others and help build a community memory -- one of the most valuable of human legacies.

It could become the ultimate memory-enhancement exercise.