People’s Park and the political potential of photo captions

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Isabella Schreiber/Staff

On May 3, UC Berkeley published a press release on its plans to develop People’s Park by building student housing, supportive housing and a memorial to the old park, retaining a smaller area of open space. The first piece of content after the title is a photo of the basketball court, bathroom and freshly painted mural, with a caption that reads, “An empty basketball court fills a corner of People’s Park, where UC Berkeley hopes to build new student residence halls and make land available for supportive housing.”

As a copy editor at The Daily Californian, I wrote photo captions for the paper, so I know that captions are meant to describe the photo and convey the article’s main point. While the caption is correct, it does not mention what appears to be a person lying in a sleeping bag underneath the rightmost hoop or the bike chained to a light post.

These details of the photo are not worth mentioning because they fail to support the point that the university’s public affairs staff wants its audience to believe: The park is empty and desolate, and therefore, very few people would be negatively impacted by its destruction.

On May 4, I decided to go play basketball. Although I was the only one on the court, looking around, I saw people scattered in every direction. Some of them appeared to live in the park, some looked like nonstudents who may live nearby, and some were students who I overheard chatting about CS 61A.

According to the campus, the park is “a haven for crime and disruption,” but all I saw was a peaceful picnic, couples enjoying a day out in the sun, people napping and a few guys smoking weed. The campus’s stance stereotypes all park users into two categories — criminals and homeless — but when I visited the park that afternoon, I just saw people.

In a recent article, the Daily Cal interviewed multiple members of the community at People’s Park, whose perspective the campus’s plan does not consider. According to them, the park is a sanctuary in a city that does not look kindly on the homeless; it gives them a site to hold community gatherings and a reliable place to find food and refuge.

In regard to crime, the campus statement notes that “people who use the park daily tend to be the victims, not the perpetrators, of illegal activity.” In tearing down the park, which is often the closest thing these people have to home, UC Berkeley would punish people who it admits are already often victims of crime.

The campus plan does include 75 to 125 apartment units of supportive housing, which sounded like a solution for the people who currently use the park — until I read deeper.

According to the FAQ page, the services at the supportive housing would be operated and funded by an independent nonprofit selected by the campus. The nonprofit brings its own criteria for residents, which include paying 30 percent of their income to the housing facility, meaning that while it will provide low-income housing that Berkeley desperately needs, there is no guarantee that the supportive housing goes to the people who currently use the park.

There can be no doubt that the housing crisis is severe — with 10 percent of students identifying as having experienced homelessness, according to a 2017 survey. The campus needs to focus on building housing that its homeless students can afford, but according to the FAQ, the new student housing on People’s Park would cost roughly the same as current campus housing — making it out of reach for students experiencing homelessness. Moreover, building supportive housing for Berkeley’s large homeless population should be the city’s top priority, not the university’s responsibility.

Since the community members who use the park now will be displaced and low-income students will not be able to afford the high rent of new units, the current plan only benefits the university, private developers and people who want to see the park destroyed.

The plan states that UC Berkeley will lease the park to a private developer to run the student housing and a nonprofit to run the supportive housing, so the university would profit by collecting rent after kicking out the park’s current dwellers.

In order to meet the goal of doubling campus’s residential capacity, UC Berkeley needs roughly 8,000 more beds. The alarming shortage is the reason why campus plans to build on all nine sites chosen in the Housing Master Plan Task Force report.

Although the need for more housing is urgent, the university plan should start with an honest representation of the people who use People’s Park and the repercussions of destroying it, instead of a press release that obscures the truth behind photos of emptiness and pages of fine print. Next, UC Berkeley should ensure that new campus housing is affordable for low-income students, instead of providing more beds at the same unaffordable price.

What is ultimately at stake is UC Berkeley’s ability to serve basic student needs without sacrificing values the university should adhere to such as inclusiveness, accessibility, innovation, empathy and cooperation. Dealing with the problems associated with People’s Park requires more cooperation with the city to solve underlying problems of homelessness and crime, or else these issues will simply relocate to other open spaces: maybe Willard Park or maybe Memorial Glade.

Solving the housing crisis requires innovation to make sure new beds are accessible to all students, or else student homelessness will continue to plague UC Berkeley. So far, the campus risks losing sight of these values and failing to seriously address the concerns of the most vulnerable students and members of the Berkeley community. We need solutions that show the best of Berkeley, but this plan leaves out the people who need housing most, like the photo caption that left people out of People’s Park.