Public Comment

Berkeley's People's Park is in the news again

Lydia Gans
Thursday March 30, 2017 - 12:21:00 PM

On April 23, friends and neighbors of People's Park will be celebrating its 48th birthday. People's Park, a 2.8 acre green space east of Telegraph between Haste and Dwight, was created after massive protests to preserve that land as a park for the people of the community. And the community has continued to maintain the park in spite of periodic confrontations with the University of California. The latest threat to the park, the announcement, that the University is considering building student housing on the land, will not go unchallenged.

In the March 11 front page article in the Chronicle the reporter quotes Carol Christ, UC interim vice chancellor and provost on a committee to produce needed student housing. Talking about People's Park: “We own the land, but we're essentially running a daytime homeless shelter in the park.”

There's no question that housing is needed but so is open space, accessible places where people can sit peacefully and enjoy the fresh air or socialize with others in the neighborhood. That's why we have dozens of parks all over Berkeley centered in different neighborhoods, reflecting the various interests or needs of the people in the community. 

People's Park serves a very diverse community. On a good day there are groups of people in conversation, or gathered for a Food Not Bombs vegetarian meal or Catholic Worker Sunday breakfast. There may be a basketball game going on, or someone tossing a ball to a dog on the lawn or practicing gymnastics. There is generally chess or other board games happening while some people are just sitting quietly reading, listening to music or checking their electronic devices. There are young people and others who are frail and elderly. There is a core of people who have been active in the park since its inception. But whether they are housed or homeless they are not in the park looking for a daytime shelter. 

The park has a history worth recalling. In 1968 the University used eminent domain to evict the residents and demolish all the houses on the block. Apparently they talked of plans to build needed student housing but nothing happened. For a year the empty lot was an eyesore, muddy and strewn with garbage. In April 1969 activists put out a call for people to help create a park. Hundreds came and cleared the ground, planted flowers and trees and built a children's playground. They created a park, a People's Park, that still lives today. 

U.C. officials met briefly with park supporters, promising to communicate with them before acting,, but it was an empty promise. Thursday May 15, 1969 was known as Bloody Thursday. Early in the morning hundreds of armed police took over the park and erected a fence around it. Thousand of people rallied and marched to the campus, policed fired tear gas. Rioting continued through the day with sheriffs coming in firing shotguns at the demonstrators. A young man named James Rector was killed, another person permanently blinded, many seriously injured by the police. The National Guard, ordered by then Governor Ronald Reagan, occupied Berkeley for days breaking up gatherings and arresting protesters. A military helicopter hovered over a crowd and sprayed toxic gas, sickening and temporarily blinding them. The horror went on for more than 2 weeks and finally ended with a protest march by about 30,000 people. 

For three years the fence remained around the park. Then one day the people tore it down and the park came to life. A community of gardeners formed, planting trees and flowers and creating a vegetable garden along the western end, welcoming everyone to help themselves to the produce. The garden is productive to this day (this writer is enjoying the beautiful organic collard greens growing there right now) in spite of continued harassment by the park's management. The gardeners built a shed to store their tools, it was taken away. Continued requests for a composting bin in the park are still being ignored in spite of the quantities of food waste left from the daily meals that are consumed there all of which now goes to the landfill. There have been periods when the water was turned off. 

Park community activists have been thwarted in other attempts to improve the park. To deal with unsightly piles of clothing left near the entrance they built a freebox. The University removed the freebox. The activists built a new freebox. It went on for years—each new freebox was more solid than the last, and each was promptly removed. The last one, made of concrete and constructed with an elaborate and comic ceremony, was gone by morning. At that point they gave up. 

It was the University's decision in 1991 to put volleyball courts in the park that drew considerable attention from the community and is still referred to scornfully. With no advance notice workers appeared one day under police protection, put up a fence and set up volleyball courts on the lawn in the center of the park. Almost nobody played volleyball. Six months later the courts came down. As people gathered someone appeared with a chainsaw and cut down the post that held the net. The wood was cut up and used in making a picnic table and benches. 

Over the years there have been continuing issues regarding maintenance, particularly the bathrooms, as well as the stage and other structures in the park. It would be hard to find another neighborhood park that is so poorly maintained. 

The University promises to provide housing and services for people in need but there is little reason to believe they will keep their promises—and good reason to reflect on what happened 50 years ago and hope that it doesn't happen again