The land now known as People’s Park was landmarked in 1984. And it is no accident that almost nobody knows why.
It took decades for the University of California to stop calling it “the block of land between Bowditch, Dwight, Haste and Telegraph” in legal documents. That particular block of scruffy, low-income housing had been a concern for the campus even in the 1950s. The mostly-student population on the south side of campus was becoming — along with San Francisco itself — known as a mecca for poetry, rock-and-roll and new forms of expression including unconventional sexuality. The meeting minutes of the campus officials at the time are comic, with concerns about the free-wheeling culture and its potential danger to UC Berkeley, which wanted to quash it and have a more bland, dignified campus like Harvard, Yale or Stanford.
The university acquired the land through a dubious use of eminent domain, stating they needed it for dorms, offices and sports courts — claims so vague and poorly founded that it made no sense to the UC regents, who wouldn’t vote them any funds for development. The bulldozed rebar and broken-glass-ridden block sat as a fenced-off nuisance for a while and then was transformed into a park by motivated neighbors.
And the campus has never stopped being annoyed at how its plans to quell the radical politics and culture on Southside backfired. UC Berkeley’s new chancellor, Carol Christ, has spent decades on committees and promoting push polls trying to cobble together support for another assault on the park and its status as a global symbol of freedom, resistance and the common sense of user development.
People’s Park is a political punching bag — a joke to some, hallowed ground to others. Finding it on a list of 10 proposed sites for student housing is nothing new, just a familiar call to those of us who remember seeing greats such as Robert Hunter, songwriter for the Grateful Dead, singing from the stage, or who have spent years tending the garden and teaching the children. Those who defend the park and its principles don’t look like much to the campus administration; we’re lawyers and teachers, copy store workers and parents, musicians and artists and always a fresh ratio of students. If the campus elects to try to destroy our landmark, we’ll be there as best we can, singing in circles, going to meetings, writing letters, sitting in, going to jail, bringing our poetry and song to UC Berkeley’s strangely repetitious war on culture.
But as a community, let’s do together the thing we always try to do first: insist that those who would destroy the park come and dance there, learn the history there, participate in the programs and traditions which make this park the distinctive landmark it is. All of Berkeley’s parks suffer from the obvious results of the housing crisis, and the criticism that People’s Park is “unwelcoming” could be leveled at any of our parks in a community whose politics is often hijacked by those who can’t seem to share the streets or parks comfortably with the poor.
But there are ten sites available, according to the campus’s own list, on which to situate more housing. People’s Park strikes most of us as an odd choice given this lengthy list — and given the serious community turmoil, loss of business and even loss of life the struggles over the park have engendered in the past. There are nine other sites the city and the campus can use to situate more housing if housing is the honest goal here.
This year a new chancellor and a new city mayor have an opportunity to either reignite the war on tie-dye or try something new. They have the opportunity to honor the Free Speech Movement and the park it played a role in building and to work cooperatively to honor our landmark and our history by choosing one of the other nine sites for development. There is, after all, a saying about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Carol Denney is an East Bay writer, musician, and the Human Rights Editor for Street Spirit newspaper.