Homogenization and It's Discontents: Southside's New Era

Despite the coming and going of the People’s Park 30th Anniversary celebration, the situation on Southside and in the park remains dubious at best. Changes are taking place at a rapid rate and neither the park activists nor the street community seem adequately prepared to deal on the altering political landscape that is emerging. We are entering a new era.

The one-year campaign of police repression on Telegraph that has gone largely unchecked by Berkeley’s activist community has taken its toll and has recently moved into the park where it seems posed to tilt the balance of power in a fragile peace that has held since the Volleyball Wars. For the past five years or so the park has stood at a stalemate with power wielded through an amorphous triad of City, University, and activists, with the People’s Park Community Advisory Board more or less calling the shots.

While the authorities still tread lightly around the park–lest the serpent rise again–they have been bolstered in the past year by their gains on the Avenue and in the area. They may also draw confidence from the hefty coalition of reactionary forces they have built up in the last several years, largely in the form of the Telegraph Area Association but, more recently, around the formation of the up and coming Southside Plan.

Nevertheless, Southside is long known to be unpredictable waters for the powers that be to navigate, and the war and recent troubles on campus suggest a future still up for grabs. One thing’s for sure: socially conscious people need to organize anew around the area if they want the historic gains of the past to be preserved and built upon.

The Avenue

The front-line battle of by whom and for what purpose Telegraph Avenue can be used is the still contested right of people to sit on the sidewalk. Though technically legal, it has been made increasingly difficult, and, at times, for all intents and purposes illegal due to the intensity of police harassment that befalls anyone gutsy enough to drop their bag and kick it. Police will do what it takes to make people not want to be there through intimidation, “hanging out” with them, or finding excuses to run warrant checks on people, hoping to get them on something else. Some people just don’t like to be around cops all the time, and who can blame them. The police’s mere presence is a violation of a person’s basic right to a stress-free and pleasant environment.

The biggest supporters of the ongoing high police presence on Southside are merchants looking to make a bigger buck, as well as UC administrators who hope to comfort university student’s parents by making the area look more like a suburb. However, let us not forget that more than a majority of the “progressive” city council supports the current level of policing, including local council member, Kriss Worthington, who last month told the Daily Californian that the city has “made significant progress” in dealing with Telegraph’s “public safety problems.”

A new group on the scene, the Southside Freedom Network, held two pickets of Telegraph businesses in April and May, targeting Cody’s, Amoebas, and Blake’s, but called for a more general boycott of Avenue businesses until the police state is lifted. In an interesting aside,

…During a Telegraph Area Association sponsored street fair to promote shopping in the area, several stands were permitted to sell beer to event goers on Durant near Telegraph, despite the fact that in the same area poor people are cited by the police on a daily basis and given $130 fines for trying to enjoy their “open container.”

The Southside Plan

Sure to push the boundaries of the current political configuration on Southside is the up and coming Southside Plan. With a draft of the plan due out in September, the Plan is an all-encompassing piece (and process) of social engineering, dominated by UC Berkeley’s Planning Department, but with a considerable and politically astute parceling out of interests to key constituencies. Both a master plan for gentrification and a UC land grab, the plan aims to totally marginalize the poor, the street community, and those who come to Telegraph for reasons other than spending money.

In less words, the plan calls for an increased privatization of the Avenue to merchant money-making interests and a greater shift in the geo-politics of the terrain away from its traditional role as a social arena for a liberatory counter-culture. Free spirits are written out of the Southside Plan entirely–apparently slated to be taken away by the police, as is already happening, for being “quality of life” criminals if they persist with their desire to inhabit public space as non-consumers.

The Plan rather ominously calls for an improvement in the “perception” of public safety in the area. An objective worded as such seems open for abuse and this is likely no accident. For what better an excuse to remove people from the area who are “perceived” to be dangerous. A special topic area on public safety is going to be included in the draft plan, though discussion topics dealing with public safety have been suspiciously absent from the many public workshops that have been held for the plan so far. Is public safety too controversial a subject for the public to discuss?

Another main feature of the Southside Plan is–surprise, surprise–development. Almost every empty lot and surface parking lot is slated for 4-plus story housing with or without commercial space at its base. Furthermore, one and two-story buildings are targeted to be replaced with taller ones and the over-all height zoning limit for the commercial area is expected to rise from 3-4 stories at present to 5-6 stories. This part of the plan has been referred to as a “Manhattanization” of the area.

While there is a need for more housing, taller, more imposing building structures–in combination with the other aspects of the plan–do not bode well for those out to enjoy the streets. Like the fact that there are no benches on the Avenue, and none included in the plan, no plans for additional open space, and coupled with the already increased levels of policing, a Manhattanization will surely contribute to the enclosure of the street community, to a psychologically more hostile urban environment, and for new restrictions on the use of sidewalks as fastlanes for getting to and from places–particularly into shops and spending money. Such a scenario, the “rat-maze effect”, would detract from the streets as places of enjoyment in and of themselves and transform them into mere corridors for shuffling a psychically dismembered populace to its next economic transaction.

The Park

In People’s Park a seemingly benign effort of late by city, university, and the more conciliatory of the park activists to make “improvements” in the park showed its true colors in recent months as the police swept in to do a little weeding and seeding of their own. Chancellor Berdahl’s timely comment about building a dorm on the park, while discounted as not a serious threat and more an effort to get students off his back, did also serve as an effective smoke screen to allow the area-wide increase in police patrols to enter the park–a university offensive, as it were, to neutralize any 30th anniversary rejuvenation. When the dust cleared, the free box had been moved, the free speech bulletin board vanished, the curb where people drop off free clothes was painted red, and cops galore.

In response, a few park activists built a new bulletin board and bench during the 30th anniversary concert. UC cops tore the bulletin board out the next morning, and when people showed up a week later to replace it, the police arrived immediately and cited People’s Park founder, Mike Delacour, for building without a permit. Even the bench was removed two weeks later, apparently suggesting UC thinks the days of user-development are over. Not so say park activists who have been organizing in recent weeks for a Day of User-Develop
ment set for Sunday, June 27.

One step in the wrong direction that the Park has been going of late is towards becoming just another park, like every other park. While such a notion rests well with those who fear someday losing the park altogether and would be a historic improvement over long-standing denial by UC of its status as anything more than a future UC development site, it is not the desired outcome. It would not be People’s Park.

People’s Park is something far grander. People’s Park, as envisioned by it’s founders, was (is?) a liberated piece of land. It is not merely a park, it’s a people’s park–a park that is of the people, that is not controlled by any outside entity, and that is based on the principles of user-development. At the same time, the people in the Park are not subjects of any governing body, of any entity–are not subjects. They are free people. The land and its people are not under the United States, the State of California, the City, the University, the County, the UN, or the People’s Park Advisory Board. People’s Park was ripped-off and never given back. It was reclaimed for the people, by the people, and for the earth. It is an autonomous zone, self-determined and self-determining. That said, People’s Park cannot be a normal park.

Not-So-Hidden Agenda

It would be one thing if the police were out actually only dealing with true problematic street behavior and legitimate threats to the public’s safety. In such a case we would be talking about a handful of individuals and relatively isolated incidents that happen usually late at night and on a dark side street.

What we are seeing carried out on Telegraph proper and in the vicinity on a daily basis is something quite different. The propaganda about crime and “perceived” threats to public safety are nothing more than that, propaganda and perceptions. It is extremely rare that a person walking on Telegraph Avenue or in People’s Park in the daytime, or even at night is going to be harmed in any way. Most fights that occur in the area are between people who know each other or drug dealers. Incidences in which complete strangers are attacked are almost non-existent.

What the police do, and the campaign they are currently carrying out, is really in an entirely different arena. It is a class-cleansing, a relocation program for poor people.