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East Palo Alto and Palo Alto:
The Original Digital Divided

By Scott Andrews    Associated Press
EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. — Mike Baker steps around mud puddles as he steers clear of a forklift, walks past a 20-foot-tall jumble of car axles and takes proud stock of his junkyard.

"We recycle cars. There's a high demand for it. People are constantly begging me to take their cars," he says, stepping under a jacked-up Toyota being dismantled by grease-stained workers.

Baker's junkyard seems a world away from the economic dynamo of Silicon Valley. But he's less than a mile from the perfectly manicured Palo Alto front yards of such industry titans as Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs and Netscape co-founder Marc Andreesen. Just across Highway 101 are the business parks of Hewlett Packard, Xerox PARC, ETrade and AltaVista Co.

Between Palo Alto and its poorer stepsister, East Palo Alto, lies the original chasm of the digital divide, the gap between computer haves and have-nots that President Clinton is fighting as part of his New Markets Initiative to encourage economic development in depressed areas.

On Monday, Clinton's campaign will include a visit to East Palo Alto and Plugged In, a computer training center.

In East Palo Alto, a city of about 25,000 residents on the edge of San Francisco Bay, 65 percent of the schoolchildren have trouble with English and 80 percent are poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches. Minorities comprise about 85 percent of the population.

"When you move here and ask where you should live, they don't necessarily tell you where you should live. They tell you where you shouldn't live," and East Palo Alto was one of those places, said Tamara Nordby, a Palo Alto hair salon manager who recently moved from Minnesota.

About 82 percent of Palo Alto's 62,000 residents are white and the median home price is around $630,000. Four of the richest 400 Americans live there and the city is so flush with money it plans to install high-speed fiber-optic Internet connections to every home.

Blacks and Hispanics are about half as likely as whites to own a computer, according to the Commerce Department. Eighty percent of families earning at least $75,000 had computers in 1998, compared to just 35.8 percent of those earning between $25,000 and $35,000.

The towns' digital divide is apparent even on the Web.

Palo Alto's Web site has 251 sections. During storms, it provides video of flood-prone San Francisquito Creek. Residents can download forms from the planning department, read City Council minutes, even search the city library's catalog.

East Palo Alto's Web site has just three pages of information, little more than outdated population figures and City Hall's address.

Still, change is coming fast to East Palo Alto. Yuppie furniture seller Ikea is moving into a new shopping center, there's a new Home Depot and the pounding of hammers echoes from new homes under construction.

Now residents have a new fear: that Silicon Valley's real estate prices will drive out the very people Clinton is trying to get connected.

Baker recently turned down a biotechnology firm's offer to buy his junkyard.

"This town is definitely changing but I hate to see it become another high-tech campus town," he said above the whine of the forklift. "I hope the city can find room for me."

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