People’s Park in Berkeley, California — located between Haste Street and Dwight Way above Telegraph Avenue. It’s still there. And it’s still a trouble-maker embodying our dreams, society’s problems and the University’s attempt to control it. People’s Park is one of the few places in this country with a claim to being Common Land. Though the University of California, Berkeley (UC) holds a paper title to the land that they obtained by abusing eminent domain and calling in police and the national guard to quell protests 38 years ago, they really don’t control this land. Their attempt to build volleyball courts and convert the Park into a student sports playground in the early 1990’s failed. The resistance that sprang forth was spirited and powerful. The coalition of people who resisted the volleyball court birthed a whole community that includes East Bay Food Not Bombs (FNB), CopWatch and nourishes Slingshot. The Park seems to rise to its glory in conflict, but how is it today in its daily existence?
First, it is good to recognize its very existence as success. The Park has resisted plans to build dorms, sports courts and parking lots. Currently the University says that it wants to keep it as a park. That’s good. Now there is a dynamic tension about what kind of park that is. One of the looming issues is about “homeless services” in the Park — FNB and numerous other groups serve free food at the park and many groups and individuals bring clothing and other items to share with others at the park.
Also the new People’s Park Community Advisory Board has initiated a “comprehensive planning process” for which the University agreed to provide $100,000 for the hiring of expert professional planners, or at least those professionals who plan how to plan. This is completely against the nature of the Park and the concept of User Development — wherein park users decide what should be done and then do it themselves — that People’s Park embodies.
The Community Advisory Board is hand selected by the University to “advise” them. There is nothing democratic about the process. Currently the board includes three conservative neighbors from the Willard Neighborhood Association (WNA) which sued and caused the demise of UC’s coolest student co-op, Le Chateau. Now these WNA board members are after the Park. One is challenging incumbent city council member Kriss Worthington who has consistently been supportive of People’s Park and user and community development of it. George Beier, Kriss’s challenger, made his quick fortune selling software to corporate banks and now has plenty of time to work on raising his property value. He talks sweet but anything said to him goes in one ear and out the other. His plan is to make People’s Park more of a lawn (like Willard Park), get the University to redesign it, install spy cameras and build a cafe on the valuable open space. If any cafe goes into People’s Park it would have to serve FREE food!
Besides threatening to “redesign” the Park, the challenge to “social services” is in full force. The most obvious attack is the repeated removal of the Free Clothing Box by the University. People’s Park has always been a place where people can share and help others. The Freebox stood for many years to assist in our community’s exchange of used clothes until it was arsoned. UC police have prevented numerous attempts by volunteers to rebuild the box. People still bring free clothes to the park only now, the clothes are distributed in a pile on the ground in front of the dumpsters. Even this method provides clothes for an amazing amount of people. The University is interested in removing services to make the Park less attractive to “those people” — homeless people, street punks, poor people and freaks. It has placed an outspoken UC Berkeley Architect professor on the advisory board who wants to remove the serving of free food and other services.
The Park has a fair amount of resiliency to official planners and changing anything successfully will require cooperation with the people who use the Park. In the meantime the Park has been really nice this year. Despite claims that the Park is under-used there are actually lots of people in it: playing chess and basketball, sleeping, sharing food and conversation, or playing frisbee. It also remains a refuge for the homeless and mentally ill. It is a surprisingly healing place, where people who may not be accepted in most realms of society can find peace, support and community. Most of this is provided by the community itself with no taxpayer services.
Truly the fate of People’s Park lies with you. It can only be a common land of sharing, a place cared for and improved through user-development and a joyful testament to the thousands of people who have in some way contributed to this dream, if you carry it on. To complain about the Park to some authority totally misses the point. Be the Park you want to see. If you want it to be a comfortable place to study or picnic, grab a few friends and go there. If you’d like to go to more music shows, organize one. If you want it cleaner, pick it up. The Park was born by people deciding to cooperatively create beauty out of an injustice and an eyesore in their neighborhood. It is much too rare in this country that we have both the opportunity and obligation to participate in such creative action.
I have hope. There are beautiful young people serving lunch, there are student groups volunteering to fix the free speech stage, there are homeless people who are gardening, there is kindness and sharing among society’s forgotten, there is basketball, chess and puzzles, there are many churches and groups who bring food to share, there is a generous flow of donated clothes, there are tomatoes and birds and lots of different people who would not meet if not for this special park. No, it’s not paradise, there are also still fights and littering and people so broken it’s tearful. But if you brave it, if you claim People’s Park as yours, as it is, you just may feel its embrace, a gift from someone before, that manifests as a sweet apple, new shoes, sunlight on a flower or that nugget of truth from a stranger’s lips. Go there.