Do Not Hide Yourself

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
March 29, 2013

Not long after I moved here from Los Angeles and settled down in Palo Alto, I was surprised to see that the New York Times was writing about my new home town.  Here’s the article I read. It’s dated November 8, 2000, and the title is “Palo Alto Journal: Hidden Away, Trailer Park Watches as Silicon Valley Drives By  (By Evelyn Nieves).”

“Though Buena Vista Mobile Home Park sits on El Camino Real, the major thoroughfare in Silicon Valley, people are barely aware of it, even here in Palo Alto. To some extent, this is because the park is partially hidden by a small strip mall housing a Blockbuster Video store, a Jamba Juice franchise, a Mexican restaurant and a children's gadget and toy store.

But even from the road, some of the old trailers [can] be seen behind an old wooden fence, parked in rows so close they [look] almost cluttered. Residents suspect that they keep their privacy because the world simply chooses not to see them, the way the mind's eye glosses over a crack in the ceiling.

And, for the most part, the anonymity [suits] the residents just fine. It is hard to admit living in the last trailer park in the land of high-tech milk and honey, where a million dollars will buy a three-bedroom, two-bath ranch.

''If you asked me out of college if I'd be living in a trailer park at age 41, I'd have laughed,'' said Pierre Tronik, as he watered the trumpet vines trellised in front of his trailer.

Though he grew up in Palo Alto -- his parents sold the house they bought for $16,000 30 years ago for $700,000 two years ago -- Mr. Tronik cannot afford to rent an apartment here, not on the $16 an hour he makes as a landscaper.

Most of the trailers at Buena Vista are the small, old-fashioned kind that can be pulled behind midsize cars. Most are 40 to 50 years old.

Yet the rent is steep, as far as trailer parks go. Mr. Tronik is paying up to $748 a month for utilities and the spot where the trailer sits. He bought the trailer for $7,500 four years ago.

Others, who have lived here longer, may pay less. With no rent control in Palo Alto, the landlord, Tim Jisser of Palo Alto, has raised rents in the park….every year for several years, residents said. The cabins at Buena Vista, run-down rooms smaller than most of the trailers, rent for $1,100 a month. The former office is rented by a family for $2,200 and is going up to $2,600 a month, park residents said.

Kathy Siegel, the housing coordinator for Palo Alto, said there was no law to restrict landlords from raising the rents. A man who answered Mr. Jisser's office phone said Mr. Jisser was out of town and would not be back or reachable until Friday, at the earliest.

''Here in Palo Alto, everything is more expensive than anywhere else,'' Mr. Tronik said. ''Food, gas, furniture, clothes. The same chains charge more here than they do in, say, San Jose.''

Jim Forthoffer, a Stanford University graduate who teaches math and coaches basketball at Mountain View High School, has lived at Buena Vista for 10 years, in one of the bigger trailers, perhaps 1,000 square feet. Though he makes over $60,000 a year, he cannot afford to buy an apartment in Silicon Valley.

Sometimes, Mr. Forthoffer said, he has second thoughts about teaching. ''You're trying to help others,'' he said, ''but you wonder if you're not hurting yourself.'' Each time the rent climbs -- and the latest increase, to take effect in January, is about 25 percent -- the equity in the trailers goes down. ''We own our trailers, so what we can get for them depends on how much the buyer has to pay [for] rent once they buy it,'' Mr. Forthoffer said. ''If the rent goes up too high, the trailer will be worth nothing.''

For some of the fixed-income residents, like 92-year-old Veneita Gale, who has lived in her trailer for 47 years, a rent increase could be catastrophic. When her rent climbs to more than $700 in January, she will have $100 left from her ''I still need to eat and buy medicine, which is plenty expensive,'' Ms. Gale said. One of her neighbors, Ann Greaves, has taken it upon herself to help Ms. Gale once the rent goes up. ''I'd never leave her without resources,'' said Ms. Greaves, a elderly woman who worked part-time doing office work for a school.

Mr. Tronik said the same thing. In fact, the one thing Buena Vista can boast about over most of the new neighborhoods with large houses is that it has the feel of a real close-knit community.

On a breezy Saturday that felt like New York in late May, a group of 10-year-old boys on banana-seat bikes stopped by Mr. Tronik's to play with his four 7-week-old kittens. Ms. Greaves walked her 9-year-old papillon, Poivre, to Ms. Gale's trailer to drop off The Palo Alto Daily News. Ellen Gold was walking her two Yorkshire terriers. Two men fiddled under the hoods of their pickups.

''Ask your mothers if you can have a kitten,'' Mr. Tronik called after the boys as they sped away, popping their wheels in the air. ''I can't afford five adult cats.''

That’s how the article ends. I still remember how shocked I was when I first read it, and realized that a local high school teacher and basketball coach was living in a trailer park because he couldn’t afford to buy a home in our community. That was 13 years ago, of course, when I was a newcomer to Palo Alto, just getting used to what kind of place this was.

The New York Times reporter who wrote that article was charmed by the anomaly of Buena Vista, hidden away in one of the wealthiest areas in America. Well, the anomaly will soon be no more. Buena Vista, which was built in Barron Park in 1926, is on its last tottering legs. The owners, still the Jisser family, have filed with the city to close it down and sell the property to the Prometheus Real Estate Group, which proposes to get a zoning change and replace the mobile home park with 187 “upscale apartments for young tech workers.”

More than 375 people live at Buena Vista. Many have been there for decades. Some are elderly; some are disabled. There are 125 children there; 103 of them attend Palo Alto schools. 12% of the students at nearby Barron Park elementary school come from Buena Vista. About 80% of the residents of the mobile home park are Latino. Most are low income or very low income. What does that mean? In Santa Clara County, the mean income for a family of 4 is $105,000. If your family’s income is 30-50% of that amount [in other words, between $31,000 and $52,500] you qualify as “very low income.”

If the Buena Vista mobile home park closes, Palo Alto will lose 108 units of affordable housing, exacerbating the city’s already severe shortage of affordable housing. Prometheus Real Estate group doesn’t have any plans to include below market rate housing in their new apartment complex. The 375 displaced residents of Buena Vista will receive mandated “relocation payments,” but given the cost of housing in this area, they will not be able to afford another place to live in Palo Alto.

They will have to go someplace else, perhaps someplace at a considerable distance – and along with their homes, they may well lose their jobs, access to good schools, a safe community and medical services. And of course, when Buena Vista is broken up, they’ll lose their longstanding neighbors and friends, and more important, perhaps, their sense that this is a place where they belong. A coalition of community groups has come together to see if the closure can be prevented – and if not, to ensure that the residents’ rights are upheld.

It happens that Buena Vista Mobile Home Park is in my neighborhood; it’s less than a five minute walk from my house. Barron Park Elementary School is just down the street from me. So I asked myself: what about us? What will our neighborhood lose if Buena Vista closes down?

There’s a brief, enigmatic story in the Talmud that speaks to this question in a powerful way. It’s found in tractate Bava Batra, which deals with torts and matters of civil law. First we have the Mishna (Bava Batra 1:5), the earliest level of the text, completed in the year 200 of the Common Era. The Mishna states the law. It says that if several residents are living in homes that share a common courtyard, they may jointly decide to build a gate or gatehouse for the courtyard. Furthermore, they may require that all the residents chip in to pay the cost of this gate and gatehouse. This reminds us of similar legislation today, involving the residents of a condominium complex – the owners of an apartment may be forced to pay for improvements to the common area.

Then the Gemara (Bava Batra 7b), composed in the centuries after the Mishnah, comments on this law. It says: “This implies that the building of a gate house is a laudable thing. However, there is [the story of] that righteous person whom Elijah spoke with [regularly]. He built a gate house for his house, and Elijah no longer spoke with him.”

The Gemara sees a problem. From the statement of the law in the Mishnah it sounds like building a gate for your courtyard is a good thing. It’s making an improvement – it increases security, and that raises the value of the property.

But then the Sages remember a story about Elijah, the prophet who, according to legend, continues to wander the world, often in the guise of a beggar. In the story they remember, Elijah used to visit a certain tzaddik, a certain righteous man, but after the man built himself a gate and gatehouse, Elijah stopped visiting. Why? Why did Elijah no longer befriend him if there’s nothing wrong with building a gate?

The answer comes from a third, even later level of the text. Rashi, the famous French rabbi of the 12th century, tells us in his commentary on the Talmud that Elijah no longer spoke with that righteous man after he built his gate “because it walls off the call of the poor people who are crying out [for money or assistance] and their voices cannot be heard.” In other words, this particular gate served as a buffer to shield its owner from the poor, to block out the sound of their voices calling for help. Elijah doesn’t want to visit a man, no matter how righteous he might seem, who walls himself off from the poor.

There are many reasons, of course, why a person might want to build a gate that blocks out the sights and the sounds of the poor. Gates give us security and privacy and peace of mind. It’s more comfortable to live in a safe, clean, quiet neighborhood that has nothing to offend our eyes or ears. It’s more pleasant to look at luxury homes and beautifully manicured lawns than it is to see a trailer park, or a low-income housing complex, or a half-way house, or a homeless person on the street. Rashi understood the impulse to keep the poor at a distance even back in the 12th century.

But Elijah won’t be dropping by communities like these anytime soon.  And God, it seems, doesn’t think much of gated communities or zoning regulations that separate the wealthy from everyone else, leaving us in separate, homogeneous, mutually isolated enclaves.

Why does Jewish tradition want us to see the faces of the poor and to hear their voices? Here’s one simple answer. A recent study in the Chronicle of Philanthropy analyzed charitable giving all over the United States, breaking down giving rates by ZIP code. It found that generosity varies greatly from one part of the country to another, and from one income group to another.

Here’s one of the more interesting findings: rich people are not the most generous givers. Households with incomes of between $50,000 and $75,000 donate on average 7.5% of their income to charity. That compares with about 4% for those with incomes of $200,000 or more.

But here’s a fascinating twist. It turns out that higher-income people who live in economically diverse neighborhoods give more on average than high-income people who live in wealthier neighborhoods. Dr. Paul Piff, a psychologist at UC Berkeley, says that this statistic is consistent with what he’s found in years of research on income and charitable giving. “The more wealth you have,” he says, “the more focused on your own self and your own needs you become, and the less attuned to the needs of other people you also become.”

It’s not that rich people aren’t generous or caring, Dr. Piff says. They’re just isolated. They don’t encounter many poor people in their daily lives, and as we all know, “out of sight, out of mind.”  He comments: “Simply reminding wealthy people of the diversity of needs that are out there is going to go a long way towards restoring the empathy or compassion deficiency that we otherwise see.”  [See: http://www.npr.org/2012/08/20/158947667/study-reveals-the-geography-of-charitable-giving]

So there are practical reasons why our tradition might object to towns where local teachers and coaches and landscapers can’t afford to live, and the children of the wealthy don’t go to school with kids whose parents clean houses or run a dry cleaning shop. The Torah envisions a very different sort of community, one based on a sense of social solidarity and common humanity. Says the book of Leviticus: “If your neighbor, being in straits, comes under your authority…let him live by your side as your kinsman” [Lev.25:35]. It means, says scholar Baruch Levine, that if a poor individual falls into debt and has to mortgage or sell his land so that he becomes a tenant farmer, you may not evict him; he must be allowed to go on living “by your side,” as a member of the community [See JPS Torah Commentary on Leviticus, p.178].

The Torah commands us to open our hands to those who are in need. But if we hide the poor and the working class from our sight, we’re apt to forget about them. We become self-obsessed and callous in our personal lives. We make political decisions that suit our own interests and ignore their impact on the majority of our fellow citizens. Our kids don’t realize that they live at the very top of the income ladder, in an exclusive island of privilege. They have no concept of what it’s like to grow up in a typical American family. And that way of life impoverishes us all.

“Do not hide yourself from your own flesh,” says the prophet Isaiah [58:7]. Do not turn your back on your own kin. For the prophet, we are all one family, united in our humanity, and without one another, our community is not whole.

Think about that dramatic moment towards the beginning of the Passover Seder, when we lift up the matzah and we say: “Ha lachma anya – this is the bread of poverty. Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Ha lachma is an invitation.  But more than that, it challenges us to ask: Who is welcome at our table, and who will live by our side? What kind of community are we?  What kind of community do we want to be? 

Note: For discussion of the Talmud Bava Batra text, see Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism, by Dr. Aryeh Cohen (Academic Studies Press, 2012)