Marginalized community members deserve sanitary bathrooms

Illustration of person washing hands in bathroom
Olivia Staser/Staff

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Berkeley activists have been struggling to obtain bathroom access on Telegraph Avenue since at least 1968. At the Berkeley City Council meeting Sept. 24, 1968, local lawyer Peter Franck spoke for his client Bill Miller. Miller was the owner of The General Store, and later co-founder of People’s Park. Franck complained that the police were systematically shutting down bathroom facilities on Telegraph Avenue.

On Sept. 27, 1968 the Berkeley Barb reported “attorney Peter Franck’s accusation that the police had successfully campaigned to close down all the pissoirs in the businesses on and near The Block on Telegraph. That charge came out as Franck lodged a formal complaint that the police have been systematically hassling The Store, newly owned by his client Bill Miller.” Bill Miller would go on to become one of the co-founders of People’s Park in April 1969.

At the Berkeley City Council meeting of September 24, 1968, local lawyer Peter Franck spoke for hisIn 1970 the City of Berkeley completed work on the Sather Gate Parking Garage and Mall which included two restrooms.

During the mid-1980s, a number of national political and social factors — including former U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s deinstitutionalization of people with mental illnesses, high unemployment and cuts to social welfare programs — led to a rise in homelessness, especially in the western states. Many people lost their housing and ended up on the streets. As a result, People’s Park became just one of the many places in the Bay Area where people congregated, and where there are people, there are human needs. 

As the Oakland Tribune reported in 1989: “A work crew accompanied by UC Berkeley police ripped out the foundation for a permanent, but unauthorized, toilet at People’s Park early yesterday. … A group of park supporters — including some who helped found People’s Park 20 years ago this spring — laid the foundation yesterday afternoon. They also dug a trench for a sewer line, which was filled in yesterday by a UC Berkeley crew. … Michael Delacour, one of the park’s founders, disagreed with that assessment. ‘They tore it out, we’ll put it back,’ he said.”

According to long-time People’s Park activist Maxina Ventura, a growing population of unhoused people and neighborhood complaints about the scarcity of restrooms encouraged People’s Park users and developers to construct bathrooms. “Five times between April and May of 1989 we used an architect’s blueprints of our plans and laid foundation, dug trenches, laid pipe, only for UC to come at middle-of-the-night to destroy the fruits of our labor. There was a lot of need, and we acted. This was user-development in action” she said.

In November 1989, after an announcement earlier in the year from the university that it was once again planning to build housing on People’s Park, which was met with protests, the city of Berkeley and the UC system entered into a lease agreement. The People’s Park bathroom building and guard shack was finally constructed by the city of Berkley and completed in 1992.

The state of People’s Park’s restrooms today is deplorable. AB 685, a bill that declares that it is the established policy of the state that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes,” was passed in 2012. Yet, neither the city of Berkeley nor the UC system maintains our public restrooms in a sanitary fashion. As Berkeley homeless activist JC Orton told the East Bay Express in 2015: “The public toilets are better described as shit houses! They’re absolutely horrible. … it’s a poor, poor job that the government and private citizens and businesses have done with regards to providing access to toilet facilities. And I don’t mean just toilet bowls and urinals, but showers, sinks — the whole bit.

At the Berkeley City Council meeting Oct. 15, District 7 Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson introduced an initiative to create 24-hour bathrooms in the Telegraph Business Improvement District, or TBID. The Daily Californian reported: My official statement on this issue is that everyone poops,’ Robinson said in an email. ‘Access to public restrooms that are available 24/7 is crucial for a livable, equitable city. This need is especially acute on Telegraph.’ ” 

The People’s Park Committee very much agrees with Councilmember Robinson on the need for 24-hour bathrooms in the Southside/Telegraph neighborhood, but we believe that the best and easiest solution would be to improve the existing bathrooms in People’s Park, maintain them well and make them 24-hour. 

The People’s Park Committee strongly disagrees with the assessment of Stuart Baker, executive director of TBID, that “The development of People’s Park is happening regardless, so whether restrooms are there or not, I don’t think it impacts whether People’s Park is developed.” People’s Park has entered its sixth decade as a historic, open, common, green space that is vital to the densely populated Southside/Telegraph neighborhood. Improving and properly maintaining our existing bathrooms would make it more welcoming and accessible to anyone, housed and unhoused, who uses People’s Park, as it embarks upon the next 50 years.

Lisa Teague is a member of the People’s Park Committee.