By: Kristine Williams, published in Joaquin Magazine

Stockton cerca 1896When you think of government decisions, what do you picture? Maybe health-care, immigration or thoughts of taxation come to mind. Perhaps images of the White House, State Capitol or even the steps of Stockton’s own historic City Hall emerge in your head. But what about the bus stop? Do the words “government” or “politics” bring forth ideas of local parks, or how far your children have to walk to get to school? Those examples may not be your first thought but government – and those involved in its political process – has a hand in these often unobserved decisions.

These decisions, such as where to build a school, hospital or business, have a wide impact on how we live our day-to-day lives. Let’s look at the previous bus stop example. If you don’t own a car do you have adequate access to public transit? How far is the stop from where you live? Does that transit come frequently enough to be convenient? Does it run in the evenings or on weekends? How much do you have to pay to use that transit? The answers to these questions affect the livelihood of countless people, particularly low-income individuals who rely on such services to get to work or run errands. 

Unfortunately this process – urban planning – lies hidden and understated beneath “sexier” issues. This allows many of these decisions to be made without real community input, often benefiting only a select few and harming many others lacking political voice and clout.

A prime local example is Stockton’s Crosstown Freeway, once referred to as the “Great Wall of Downtown,” connecting Interstate 5 to Highway 99. Construction of the freeway started in the mid-1970s and was part of a broader national trend where large infrastructural projects were often pushed through low-income neighborhoods dominated by ethnic minorities.  Important planning decisions were discussed and made with no input from the local communities they would eventually affect.

In their book, “Positively No Filipinos Allowed,” authors Antonio Tongson, Edgardo and Ricardo Gutierrez discuss the background behind the massive project. “Because Stockton’s elites were concentrated in the neighborhoods north of Main Street, the impact of the Crosstown Freeway on the poor and minority communities of downtown and the south and east sides went largely unnoticed until construction of the thoroughfare was imminent.”

It took nearly 20 years and the eventual eviction and displacement of 430 residents and 81 local businesses before the crosstown freeway was finally completed in 1993. The vast majority of those displaced were not invited to participate in planning the project and those who attended meetings and hearings carried no financial or political sway.. The decisions were made by individuals not representative of the affected population and the finalized result had serious implications that have since perpetuated poverty and blight in downtown Stockton.

According to the three authors, “Though highway engineers had promised that the freeway would be an attractive addition to downtown, the intimidating structure became, and continues to be, a physical barrier between two vastly different Stocktons, separating downtown and the city’s affluent, white north side from the poorer, working-class south side, predominantly black, Latina/o, and Asian.”

It is important for our elected officials to be truly representative of the communities they have been chosen to represent, particularly in urban planning issues. While still underrepresented, Latinos and other minority populations are nonetheless increasing their presence in American politics partly due to sheer increase in population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the nationwide Latino population increased by 15 million individuals from the year 2000 to 2010. According to researcher Shanilinin Calderon, “there should be greater public awareness of Latino political participation, because this community makes up a large and growing percentage of the U.S. population.”

This large and real shift in American demographics will hopefully overturn the trend of urban planning for the few as a more ethnically diverse base of political representatives are elected. Even in Stockton the diversity of our local representatives is increasing but equitable decisions should still not be made by only a handful of elected delegates. It is up to regular citizens to inform those they elect of their concerns and hopes for their community. You can contact your council member by calling (209) 937-8244.