Last winter, the university demolished over 40 healthy trees at People’s Park. The university has demolished nearly 20,000 in the hills, and until this year, used the toxic herbicide glyphosate. Meanwhile, worldwide, people are planting 1 trillion trees, the lungs of our planet. In sacrificing green space for economic profit a few make a lot of money at the expense of all of us.
The media has begun to focus on the Brazilian rainforest burning, raising alarm across the world. We might want to see the university’s actions in the same light. People’s Park is part of the lungs of the Southside neighborhood as well as an obvious site to gather in the event of an earthquake or other emergency. It’s an invaluable green space for our community. Now, the east side of the park is hot and sunny where the university decimated much of the cool, oxygen-rich forest.
In cutting down our trees, the university cited tree health, proximity to power lines and interference with lighting as reasons. According to the National Fire Protection Association Handbook, living trees are considered a fire mitigation factor rather than a hazard if they are properly spaced and pruned. When some of us at People’s Park faced arrest to protest the cutting down of three trees, the university decided not to. This kind of direct action has always helped protect our park and is necessary to ensure that it remains a healthy, positive space.
People’s Park is a user-developed park. For five decades we’ve resisted the university’s repeated attempts to develop our community space in order to save this park for everyone.
They say they need the park’s 2.8 acres, and Oxford and Gill tracts, for housing. At Oxford and Gill tracts, students learn and practice organic gardening and agriculture. People’s Park is a historical landmark, a site where many members of the Berkeley community live and gather. It’s not as if this is the only land available — UC Berkeley has many “opportunity sites” in its documents, including 50-plus acres at Clark Kerr Campus.
The city of Berkeley recently sued UC Berkeley because of the campus ignoring its own 2005 Long Range Development Plan for 2020, having let in students at already close to 10,000 over the numbers agreed upon in 2005 for next year. Additionally, UC Berkeley costs the city $21 million a year in services. As part of a legal settlement, the campus pays the city annually to offset the impact. In 2018, this payment totaled $1.8 million. An increase in enrollment has contributed to a treacherous housing crisis. This overcrowding has led to more cars on the streets too. With all that toxic exhaust in our increasingly dense city, we need our green spaces.
While UC Berkeley has been focused on building more off campus, the campus has been singled out as overflowing with seismically unsafe buildings. While UC Berkeley has begun to address the problem, the campus has still left thousands of students, professors and workers on campus in danger, some in buildings liable to kill people, as clarified in a recent expose in the Los Angeles Times. This is all on a campus on a fault line, when 30 years ago, the United States Geological Survey predicted a major quake by now.
While the university may not properly protect people, People’s Park is a center for community. People take it upon themselves to bring food, toiletries, menstrual gear, socks and water to some of the most vulnerable. Benches allow people to gather comfortably, even in the rain, offering a little dignity in an increasingly volatile society. All are welcome at People’s Park. Many have volunteered time and skills for half a century. It’s inspiring to those of us involved for years to see the ever-changing cast of thoughtful people of all ages coming out to the park to offer food, support and humanity. It’s a balm of sorts in the cutthroat environment of this region where people who need help often get little and are just trying to survive. Everyone can find something to do to make life a bit easier for people, many with disabilities that make day-to-day life hard.
For 50 years, thousands of volunteer activists for People’s Park have stood up to the university’s claims that they need the land for student housing. But that argument was contradicted by its actions; in the 1960s, authorities seized the land that is now People’s Park, evicted residents, bulldozed that block’s worth of existing housing and then didn’t build student housing. They left a mud pit, and students and neighbors eventually created the park. Meanwhile, many students are homeless, and there’s food bank information on boards near classrooms. The university should take more responsibility and more action.
People’s Park continues to serve its original purposes: community, organizing and free speech. The university continues to get in the way of that.
Two student groups were working with us to present a concert Aug. 24 and were denied by the university over some insurance we’ve not needed in the past. Then the San Francisco Mime Troupe applied for a permit for that day and was denied in spite of having insurance. The troupe is welcomed with open arms to parks all around the Bay, but the university’s lack of flexibility in the permitting process denied students the ability to see SFMT’s play focusing on environmental destruction and the housing crisis affecting us.
Every week, we volunteer activists meet Sundays at the park from 1 to 3 p.m. We invite you to come join, to support the park and to resist the university’s attempt to develop it. We look forward to working with you.
People’s Park is a green island of open space in an increasingly dense Southside neighborhood. Our trees, our gardens, our grass provide space for the neighborhood — housed and unhoused — to recharge and take a break from the crowds thronging Telegraph Avenue. People’s Park was born in the turmoil of the anti-war movement and has become a symbol of resistance. It remains vitally important that the community have a common area, a place to share and speak truth to power. The future of People’s Park is still unclear, but the members of the People’s Park Committee believe that the park is worth saving.
This op-ed was written by Maxina Ventura, Aidan Hill, Joe Liesner, Lisa Teague, Russell “Crusty” Bates, Andrea Prichett, Paul Prosseda, Hali Hammer, Tom Luce, Paul Kealoha Blake, Dayton Andrews, Arthur Fonseca, Thomas Lord and other members of the People’s Park Committee.