The People vs. People’s Park

After decades of stalemate, the skeevy green south of the UC Berkeley campus may finally see new life.

San Francisco magazine

June 28, 2018

It’s a Friday
 during graduation season at UC Berkeley, but three blocks south of campus there are no caps and gowns, no proud parents, no picnicking grad students slapping grades on blue books in a flurry. Here in People’s Park, it’s chow time. A volunteer from the vegetarian antiwar group Food Not Bombs pedals a bike to the side of the stage on the western edge of the park. The bike is rigged to a small trailer loaded with steaming pots of rice, beans, and vegetables, which the man ladles out to two dozen or so scruffy-looking park dwellers.

I recognize one man in the food line, a conspiracy theorist who used to rant at students on Sproul Plaza when I was an undergraduate a decade ago. Wearing a soiled shirt and handing out flyers, he doesn’t appear to have changed much. In the distance, a man sitting on the grass loudly tells a story about meth users performing sex acts for “a bottle of Wild Irish Rose.” Another man points out the colony of rats that live under the stage from his bench seat, where he’s digging into his food. “The students should come here,” he says. “But everyone tells them, ‘Don’t go to People’s Park.’”

It’s true. If there’s one piece of advice universally bestowed on incoming freshmen at Berkeley, it’s to avoid the 2.8-acre park off Telegraph Avenue, which has become a magnet for indigents and a locus of crime since its idealized heyday in the 1960s and ’70s. Over the last five years, the UC Police Department has logged five rapes in the confines of the park, along with 42 thefts, 140 assaults or batteries, 182 reports of drug or narcotic possession, and 37 complaints of dangerous animals. Last year, a woman fed meth to a toddler playing there. On New Year’s Day, a man was stabbed in the head during a fight. On April 23, a man suspected of multiple sexual assaults around campus was spotted at People’s Park and arrested. “Most of the students I know don’t go there,” concurs undergraduate Amir Wright, a senator-elect on UC Berkeley’s student council, the ASUC. “I don’t use it. I have no reason to.”

That could soon change. In May, the university, which owns the land, released a plan to redevelop People’s Park, which marks its 49th anniversary this year. Chancellor Carol Christ announced that UC Berkeley would build up to 1,000 beds of student housing and 75 to 125 apartments of supportive housing for homeless people while maintaining an unspecified but smaller amount of open space and erecting a “memorial honoring the park’s history and legacy.” The plans are part of the chancellor’s effort to increase the amount of housing available to UC Berkeley students. The campus has identified nine university-owned plots around town for possible redevelopment. It’s a belated acknowledgment of a system-wide failure by the university: As of 2018, UC Berkeley provides the lowest proportion of dorm beds for students of any University of California campus, with just 8,700 housing slots for more than 42,000 undergraduate and graduate students. With nearly 80 percent of its undergraduate student body having to turn to the open market for housing and the overall number of students enrolled at Cal increasing by 18 percent over the past decade, rents in the city of Berkeley have unsurprisingly skyrocketed—to a median of $2,027 for a one-bedroom in 2017, up from an inflation-adjusted median of $1,495 in 2008.

Wright, a junior who also sits on the city’s housing commission, supports the school’s plan for People’s Park. “It memorializes the [history of the] park, while also providing affordable housing and student housing,” he says, adding that for most of today’s students, knowledge of the park’s role in the Free Speech and antiwar movements is scant. “By and large, the majority of students have minimal knowledge or are wholly unaware” of the park’s history, he says. “They ask, ‘Was it Bloody Thursday or Bloody Tuesday?’”

It was Bloody Thursday—when, on May 15, 1969, thousands of people confronted National Guard soldiers and local police at the site of the park. There, on an empty lot, students had planted flowers and laid sod, claiming the plot in the name of the counterculture, which led Governor Ronald Reagan to send in the National Guard. On that Thursday, students marched from Sproul Plaza down Telegraph Avenue to the park, hoping to reclaim it, and police opened fire with shotguns, killing James Rector, a student watching from a nearby rooftop, and injuring dozens, a tragedy that presaged the Kent State massacre of the following year. During the ensuing unrest, police launched tear gas into the crowd.

For many boomers, those events consecrated the park as holy ground. (According to family lore, my uncle, then a law student, spent the night in jail after punching a member of the National Guard.) John Lennon cheered the uprising from his Montreal bed-in. Joni Mitchell celebrated it on the title track of 1974’s Court and Spark. But as the years went by, the park became unlovely and unloved, turning into a day camp for the homeless (it’s swept clear each night) and a hotbed of crime.

The university has tried to repurpose the site before. In 1971, it constructed a basketball court there, but protesters demolished it the same year. Later, in 1979, the university built a parking lot on part of the space. The next day, demonstrators including Berkeley mayor Gus Newport tore it up. In 1991, workers cleared the way for a volleyball court; 12 days of riots ensued, and an activist broke into the chancellor’s residence with a machete in retaliation. In 2012, a protester held up maintenance work on the park by launching a tree sit.

But nearly half a century on, if the park’s symbolism hasn’t vanished entirely, it has faded. “I just checked my watch, and it looks like it’s not the 1960s anymore,” says Dan Mogulof, a UC Berkeley spokesperson. With housing affordability for Berkeley residents becoming an existential concern, more and more neighbors would rather watch housing grow there than trees and flowers. “We contest the idea,” Mogulof says, “that the best way to honor the park’s past is to let the status quo persist.”

Berkeley mayor
 Jesse Arreguin, at 33 years old, is decades younger than Berkeley’s previous mayor, Tom Bates, who graduated from Cal in 1961. The historical memory of the ’60s weighs on Arreguin about as heavily as World War I did on Bates’s peers. “My experience was walking through as a student and feeling unsafe,” Arreguin tells me. “I feel concern for the homeless who use the park, but in its current iteration it is not meeting the spirit the park was created to accomplish.”

These sentiments are a far cry from those of previous Berkeley leaders, such as Mayor Loni Hancock, who in 1989 told the Los Angeles Times, “You wouldn’t build a dormitory on the battlefield of Gettysburg.” Yet today, Hancock, who planted grass and flowers at the park in 1969, supports dorms there. When I ask her about that quote now, she turns thoughtful. “I still do believe that about Gettysburg,” she says, but “now the chancellor’s resolution seems right to me.”

Five decades is a long time. “The world has changed,” she says. “The university has changed. The police have changed.” In her mind, the proposal could be “a very happy ending to a long story.”

Times have indeed changed in Berkeley—the Telegraph Avenue that once beckoned tie-dyed dreamers now houses a Chipotle, a Noah’s Bagels, and a Peet’s Coffee, chains that Arreguin recognizes serve current students even if they curdle the blood of town elders. Cal long ago defanged the memory of the Free Speech Movement, turning it from a model of protest into a model of café decor; it may finally be time to institutionally capture People’s Park, too.

Arreguin, who often displays suspicion over large-scale development, has become an unlikely evangelist for building in the park. For the past year, he has been quietly talking with Chancellor Christ about the plan. As a show of good faith, last July she hired a social worker to help those who spend their days there. This May, Arreguin announced his support for Christ’s redevelopment plan: “It’s time to do something different,” he says.

That doesn’t mean the plan doesn’t have its critics. Posters have gone up around the park reading, “Prepare Now for the People’s Park Riots of 2018 (Date and Time to Be Announced).” On the local news site Berkeleyside, graduate student Sarah Doggett intimated that the university had ulterior motives: “They have tried to turn People’s Park into a controlled, orderly place since its creation, nearly half a century ago.”

But even many of the park’s defenders aren’t enchanted with what it has become. Tom Dalzell, the 66-year-old author of a forthcoming history of People’s Park, worries that its history means little today. He does not support the redevelopment plan, but neither does he defend the status quo. “There is an existential change going on in terms of what Berkeley is,” he says. “If you don’t carry that memory with you onto Telegraph,” then you’re more likely to see the park through a different lens. The truth? “It’s a little shabby.”