Although half of East Palo Alto's residents were African Americans in 1990, Latinos now constitute about three-fourths of the total population, while the proportion of African Americans has decreased to about 16%. A small minority of Pacific Islander population also resides in East Palo Alto, mostly Tongans with some Samoans and Fijians . East Palo Alto has the largest concentration of Pacific Islanders of any U.S. city or town outside of Hawaii.
East Palo Alto has an unenviable reputation for crime and poverty, a reputation well deserved during the 1980s and early 1990s (in 1992, the city had the highest per-capita murder rate in the country with 42 murders). Since then the city's crime problems have somewhat subsided, thanks in great part to an extremely proactive police chief and department. The prosperity that benefited the Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s largely bypassed East Palo Alto. The Ravenswood City School District, which serves East Palo Alto and part of adjoining Menlo Park, has struggled with low academic performance and allegedly corrupt leadership. Eventually, however, the Peninsula's shortage of land and soaring property prices meant that even East Palo Alto became an option for urban regeneration. Until recently, gentrification has been rare in East Palo Alto. East Palo Alto was depicted in the 1995 film Dangerous Minds, which was based on the experiences of a Carlmont High School teacher and her experiences with bussed in students from East Palo Alto.
East Palo Alto also includes a small piece of land across the Bayshore Freeway (US 101) from the shopping center, a roughly triangular area between US 101 and the San Francisquito Creek, which includes a former two-block-long retail business district known as Whiskey Gulch. (The name dates back to the time that Stanford University, in Palo Alto to the west, was dry and prohibited alcohol sales within a radius of one mile (1.6 km) from the campus: Whiskey Gulch was just outside the limits, and was home to a number of liquor stores and bars.) The city has torn down Whiskey Gulch and replaced it with the University Circle office complex. A 200-room Four Seasons hotel opened in University Circle in 2006 after numerous delays to serve the Silicon Valley market. The new hotel is being promoted as the most lavish and luxurious full-sized hotel available in the mid-Peninsula and West Valley area, but has had problems with physically settling into the marshy bay landfill on which it was built (evidence of this was not noticed until windows built for it would not fit into their frames).
In the early twentieth century, EPA was a diverse community, racially and socially mixed, largely working class. In the early 1960s, a few real-estate brokers waged a blockbusting campaign. When African Americans asked about buying a house, they were steered to EPA. Whenever a black family bought a house, the broker's card would appear in the mailboxes next door, reading: "A black family moved next door. Call me." Predictably, this produced a supply of leads. A tipping point was quickly reached: within a few years, EPA became mostly black.
Significant gentrification occurred in East Palo Alto from around 2000, with the construction of a large shopping center named Ravenswood 101 (including a Home Depot and a Best Buy, and a controversial IKEA store) and several upscale housing communities (intended for high-earning Silicon Valley workers). This gentrification has faced opposition from local residents. Some residents charge that it serves to price locals out of one of the region's only affordable communities while providing only low-paying jobs in the retail developments and consuming a disproportionate amount of the tiny city's land area (2.5 square miles).
Despite its name, East Palo Alto lies almost entirely north, and not east, of Palo Alto. It is bordered on the west by Menlo Park and Palo Alto, and to the east by the San Francisco Bay. The San Francisquito Creek defines its western edge. To the north are Ravenswood Point and the western end of the Dumbarton Bridge in Menlo Park.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 2.6 square miles (6.7 km²), of which 2.5 square miles (6.6 km²) are land and 0.04 square miles (0.1 km²) of it (0.78%) are water.
There were 6,976 households out of which 47.3% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 48.2% were married couples living together, 19.8% had a female householder with no husband present, and 24.4% were non-families. 18.2% of all households were made up of individuals and 4.5% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 4.20 and the average family size was 4.64.
In the city the population was spread out with 35.0% under the age of 18, 13.4% from 18 to 24, 32.6% from 25 to 44, 14.0% from 45 to 64, and 5.1% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 26 years. For every 100 females there were 106.2 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 107.9 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $45,006, and the median income for a family was $44,342. Males had a median income of $26,631 versus $27,044 for females. The per capita income for the city was $13,774. About 13.5% of families and 16.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 16.6% of those under age 18 and 10.9% of those age 65 or over.
East Palo Alto gets little noise pollution from the Dumbarton Bridge; however, it is close enough to Mountain View's Shoreline Amphitheatre to get nontrivial noise pollution during loud rock concerts.
The local area around the bridge is an important ecological area, hosting many species of birds, fish and mammals. The endangered species California clapper rail is known to be present in the western bridge terminus area.
East Palo Alto is the home of the Major Taylor Cycling Club, named after the famous African-American bicycle racer "Major" Marshall Taylor.