Kiling the park to make it safe

The latest threat to People’s Park in Berkeley — a living testament to the struggle to reclaim land and the dream of sharing it in common — comes in the form of University of California sponspored proposals to “re-design” the park. To defend the park, we need to go to the meetings of the university-appointed advisory board, and we need to be proactive about creating community based process.

People’s Park has always relied on “user-development” — the process of those who use the park collectively deciding what should be done, and then doing it. In 1969, the Park was created spontaneously and without permission. Much in the spirit of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, People’s Park has been a 39 year experiment in tending gardens, feeding one another, building and keeping up tables and benches, the free clothes rock, the free-speech stage, and providing community. The concept of paid contract workers implementing a design by “experts” that was commissioned by bureaucrats is completely against the nature and unique value of People’s Park.

In a recent Orwellian twist, the design architects hired by UC Berkeley published a report declaring that People’s Park was under-utilized and lacked diversity. In fact, People’s Park has more users per area than probably any other Berkeley park and is arguably one of the more diverse places on Earth. What “lack of diversity” meant in their report was that some well-off, white, “nice” people don’t feel comfortable using the Park.

The semantics of the debate on People’s Park are carefully couched in politically correct wording, seldom using words like “class”, “race”, or “gentrification”. Instead it is worded as issues of “comfort” and “safety”. What’s really going down is that the Park has become a sanctuary for people who are increasingly marginalized. Skyrocketing rents, closed psychiatric wards and spinning times have left many homeless and unwelcome in other parts of the city. It’s challenging all right. In the face of all this, the Park has provided a remarkable service — giving tangible, physical support and more subtly providing a scattered, yet real web of community for those most in need.

Unfortunately this creates a place that is understandably “uncomfortable” to those who are used to more predictable and controlled environments. One is likely to find folks talking to themselves, partying or hustling a few bucks.

Meanwhile the population of both the City of Berkeley and the University of California students has been getting richer and whiter. “Compassion burnout” is exhibited in recent Berkeley anti-homeless legislation and a San Francisco Chronicle columnist spewing homeless hate on the front page. The University, neighbors and rich hill folks would like to see it “cleaned up.” So here we are, the soul of Berkeley and People’s Park teetering in history.

The Park has its problems. The Park is not the cause of these problems. One should look toward economic structures and social dynamics for the cause. In fact, the Park alleviates the symptoms. I shudder to imagine Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley without the Park. The green space and singing birds and freedom is the breath of soul all us city dwellers need.

Of course the common goal is to have the Park inviting and nurturing for all. The challenge is to create this. That is not the same as removing people who make others, who have to witness their difference or suffering, uncomfortable. Instead we should focus on creating an active, diverse and healthy place. Dilute the problems with the solution.

And since People’s Park is a do-it-yourself kind of place, it is upon all of us to make it more how we dream it could be. If folks would like to see more neighbors’ picnics, well bring your neighbors and some food and blankets. There have been great ideas lately of activities for the Park including Tai Chi classes, art shows, movie nights, tea parties, theater, beer-fest etc. Organize an activity! Come to the Park, enjoy it, share music, food, conversation, sun, chess, Frisbee, gardening. People’s Park is yours, believe in the dream of sharing.

A member at the last People’s Park Advisory Board actually passed a proposal for a design “competition”. People’s Park is about cooperation not competition.

If you care about the Park, please come out in support of it now. We are planning a “Quest for Common Ground” process to vision the park in the spirit of cooperation. There will be visioning activities on Sunday Mar 30 (April 6 rain date) and on the Anniversary, Sunday April 27, in the Park.

UC advisory board meetings are on the first monday of each month at 7 pm at 2362 Bancroft Way in Berkeley. Check for the UC architects’ proposal and updates. Please get involved in these processes soon to add our generation’s contribution to this unique legacy.