Bridging divides: Palo Alto and Bloomington, Indiana to enter sibling city agreement

STORY BY SAMUEL STEIN, PHOTO BY ARYA NASIKKAR

An unlikely duo separated by more than 2000 miles, Palo Alto and Bloomington, Indiana are soon to be connected by a sibling city relationship. At its Nov. 15 meeting, the Palo Alto City Council accepted a resolution to create this relationship, which now pends the likely approval of the Bloomington City Council.

A sibling city relationship is an agreement between cities to promote cultural and commercial ties, and the two mayors say they hope this connection will unite people from both sides of political controversies.

“It’s an idea that has grabbed a lot of hearts, energy and attention to think about this domestic sibling city [agreement] that does try to learn and share and grow,” said Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton, Zooming into the Palo Alto council’s meeting. “But, also [to] be part of this effort to knit our country back together again, just a step at a time, community by community.”

Palo Alto Mayor Tom Dubois said he hopes this initiative will set an example for other cities.

“It’s about forming this relationship, a U.S. sister city relationship with Bloomington, Indiana,” Dubois said. “It’s also, hopefully, a pilot for a larger national program to really encourage this kind of relationships between cities in the United States to bridge divisions between the country and to increase understanding amongst the community.”

Sibling Cities U.S.A., a national nonprofit organization that aims to break stereotypes and unite the cities, is facilitating the projected relationship between Palo Alto and Bloomington.

Sibling Cities U.S.A uses three steps with multiple components to unite cities and their people together. The first stage of this process focuses on the communities and their culture. In this stage, residents of both cities are encouraged to get to know one another over virtual interfaces like Zoom and possible in-person trips. This may involve joining meetings on a variety of topics, like the environment, racial justice and LGBTQ equality. 

In the next stage, the cities collaborate commercially for mutual success with businesses. The two chambers of commerce may coordinate on additional topics and private equity investors may open themselves to pitches from both cities.

The final stage encourages residents of both towns to exchange opinions on divisive policy issues. Group discussions and meetings provide the chance for the two cities to “hear each other out in a respectful, safe and open manner.” This step aims to allow the citizens of each city to discuss issues once they already have a deeper understanding of each other.

While Indiana, where Bloomington is located, is a red-leaning state, the city cast its electoral votes for Joe Biden in the 2020 election. Bloomington is similar in size to Palo Alto, however, it is located in south-central Indiana, a generally rural place, and is a “limestone” city or a manufacturing city.

The sister city resolution is yet to be approved by Bloomington City Council, yet the mayor showed strong support during the Nov. 15 Palo Alto council meeting. 

“I want to express on behalf of the city of Bloomington and my fellow elected officials how excited we are about this,” Hamilton said. “I just so appreciate this first step.”

Palo Alto to implement Lyft-like city-run ride sharing service

STORY BY SAMUEL STEIN, PHOTO BY ARYA NASIKKAR

Palo Alto residents will soon be able to benefit from a government-run on-demand transit service similar to Uber and Lyft, projected to begin before the 2022 school year. The city council gave the project the green light at its Nov. 8 meeting when it agreed to accept $2 million from the VTA and put up its own $500,000 to fund the program.

The transit service, which will be operated by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA),  will offer shared rides driven by city personnel in government-owned vehicles. According to Philip Kamhi, Chief Transportation Official of Palo Alto, the city hopes to implement this service before the 2022 school year, so students may use the system. 

“We’re taking the time to make it right,” said Kamhi. “We want this to work.”

Residents will schedule rides to and from locations via an app. There will be no extra tax for the upkeep of this program, only a projected $2.50 fee per ride to help fund the service. Certain demographics, like senior citizens, may receive discounts on the rides which will be confined to Palo Alto.

Kamhi is optimistic about the benefits of such a program, which reach further than just serving the community. 

“It may be environmentally friendlier than other single-occupancy vehicles,” Kamhi said. “It’s just more cost-efficient, as they’re all shared rides.”

However, the city is experiencing its fair share of struggles: for one, finding the drivers for their service. According to Kamhi, the labor force was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a “tight labor market.”

Despite this obstacle, Kamhi said he believes the transit service will be beneficial to Palo Alto residents.

“This service will provide mobility to all, and just makes Palo Alto more connected,” Kamhi said.

30 years and a pandemic later, the Palo Alto book sale still goes strong

STORY BY SAM STEIN, PHOTOS BY EMILY YAO

For the past 30 years, a dedicated group of volunteers from the Friends of the Palo Alto Library (FOPAL) have been maintaining a book sale with a variety of books at affordable prices. The sale has helped fund the Palo Alto City Library, and continues to foster community environments.

Taking place on the second Saturday and Sunday of each month at the Cubberley Community Center, the sale is divided into a children’s room, adults’ room and “bargain“ room.

The book sale itself makes around $100,000 a year for the Palo Alto City Library, and processes 40,000–60,000 books each month. FOPAL supplies the sale solely through book donations by the public. 

FOPAL is a public-private partnership that was established in 1938. The organization helps fund the library; money from fundraisers like the book sale give the library more room to act on its own without approval from the city council.

Books for sale in the children’s room.

Books of all types of genres can be found in the sale, ranging from history and the arts to fiction and business; CDs, cassettes, DVDs, board games, postcards and records are also available. 

“It’s a really great way to find older books, books that are out of print,” long-time customer Jeremy Erman said. “It’s a great resource in the internet age. There are lots of books and resources here that aren’t actually available online, so it’s a way to find stuff you can’t find anywhere else, as there’s a lot of historical stuff that can give you an insight into the past.”

Customers peruse books in the adults’ room.

Customers are also drawn to the book sale due to its affordability. 

“I’m a teacher, and I need books, [but] it’s hard to find books that I can afford,” 4th-grade teacher Melanie Han said. “I spent nine bucks and I got 12 books.”

Due to COVID-19, policies such as restrictive room occupancy and mask-wearing have been put in place to help provide a safer shopping experience.

The pandemic also hit the book sale — a volunteer-only service — hard. Many volunteers stopped returning, and FOPAL has struggled to find replacements.

“More volunteers would be a huge benefit for us,” said Jannette Herceg, FOPAL’s director of volunteer engagement. “Through COVID, we lost about 50% of our volunteers. Not all of them have returned. I’ve spent the last several months recruiting constantly, but we could certainly use more volunteers.”

“We really do need more manpower,” said Margaret, a regular volunteer since 2008. “Some people just drop out randomly without telling us, as a lot of our volunteers are school-age kids or retired adults. It’d be nice to get more people.”

Some referred to the sale as a “great resource,” considering its possibilities for younger generations and parents. As the books are so cheap, and with young readers’ tendency to quickly outgrow books, the sale provides a valuable opportunity for parents and teachers to purchase affordable books that can be easily replaced if ruined by sticky fingers or spilled food. 

Young customer looks through shelf of children’s books.

“All the proceeds go to the library,” Margaret said. “We get so many regulars, and so many children and adults here. Teachers and nonprofits can get free books, too. Books are information — the more we have, the more we can learn.”

Student activists rally for climate action at Palo Alto council meeting

STORY BY SAMUEL STEIN, PHOTO BY ARYA NASIKKAR

Palo Alto Unified School District students demanded climate action at Monday’s Palo Alto City Council meeting, urging council members to prioritize sustainability through the acceleration of S/CAP, Palo Alto’s Sustainability and Climate Action Plan. 

“We want to show the city council that even if they’re not going to take action, we’re going to do our best to convince them to, and we’re going to take action in our lives to build that future that we want to see,” said Katie Rueff, a Gunn High School junior.

S/CAP aims to decrease Palo Alto’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from 1990 levels through initiatives such as developing custom carbon emission reduction plans, diverting trash from landfills and reducing transportation-related emissions by increasing the number and accessibility of electric vehicle chargers. 

While the coalition of students is grateful for the ambitious goals set by S/CAP, the students believe S/CAP is currently moving through the city government too slowly and wish to ensure that these goals come to fruition by making their voices heard by their legislators and fellow residents.

“We’re trying to get this going on a regular basis, so [the] city council should expect to hear more from us,” Rueff said. “Getting our voice in the mix and getting the S/CAP process expedited are our two main goals here.”

Rueff, along with Gunn senior Saman de Silva and Castilleja sophomore Julia Zeitlin, organized this joint effort in order to push the council from “inaction.” The students praised efforts from Councilmember Alison Cormack and Vice Mayor Pat Burt with S/CAP, however, they stressed the importance of engaging residents with the changes.  

“Just put [the] word out there,” de Silva said. “Tell people that they need to be doing this if they think climate change is an issue … If the city council is really spreading awareness of that and engaging with groups, … then you decrease that gap between city council and action.”

All of the students who commented at the board meeting say they are passionate about the environment and come from a variety of backgrounds and involvement in climate justice organizations and high school environmental clubs. 

“[We are] a group of students that want other students to not feel complacent in the fight against climate change,” de Silva said. “[Climate change is] not out of our control, it’s in our hands. The ball is in our court, we have to take that power and that privilege as people with those voices and do anything we can to amplify our voices.”

The students hope that the council will take their comments at the meeting into account and approve both their goals and key actions document and 3-year work plan before the end of the year.

“Our ideation as a city is only as effective as our ability to create results with it,” de Silva said. “Policies, pilot programs and tangible conclusions are going to bring us action against climate change, not endless talk and negotiation.”