In defense of People’s Park

Illustration of a group of people in front of People's Park, holding up signs and tools in support of repairing the park
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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Despite UC Berkeley and Capital Strategies’ drive to develop People’s Park — replete with fences erected during the pandemic — the park supports an active community that remains entirely connected to the larger Berkeley community: materially, historically and presently.

While more student housing is necessary, the kind of housing is as important as where it will be built. What students need is affordable housing, and the proposed housing projects won’t alleviate student needs if their room and board costs fall within the $18,000 to $20,000 a year range of existing student housing. In comparison, room and board in the Berkeley Student Cooperative is about $7,000 a year. If housing is to be built, it must be economically and socially equitable.

The UC Berkeley Housing Task Force 2017 Student Housing Survey proposed 10 different sites and includes a survey of the priorities of undergraduates, graduate and postdoctoral students. People’s Park ranks fifth for undergraduates, seventh for graduate students and eighth for postdoctorals. PeoplesPark.org also features maps of alternative housing development sites and sketches of possible housing projects. Besides the one other catastrophic proposal to build housing on the Oxford Tract — which would involve paving over some of the last arable land in the city, destroying ongoing agroecological farming research, eliminating the Student Organic Garden that provides produce to the UC Berkeley Food Pantry and ringing the death knell of UC Berkeley’s charter as a land grant institution for agricultural research — these other sites are equally viable options. In some cases, the only issue presented by alternative sites is the replacement of parking spots.

So why target a green space during a state of climate crisis that has reliably provided food and shelter to the homeless and is also a historical landmark? The answer can only be found in an ideological battle that has been raging for decades between the various occupants of the park and their landlords, the UC Board of Regents and the administrators of UC Berkeley.

The history of the park’s struggle is so substantial and influential that there are entire books, websites and murals devoted to it. Yet its history is not often told on campus tours or at orientations. Of course, administrators will laud the history of the Free Speech Movement and maybe even meet with you in the overpriced cafe on campus named after it. But the discrepancy is clear: UC Berkeley has centered its reputation on the zealous Free Speech Movement while the less palatable narrative of People’s Park — a history marred by egregious violence and bloodshed at the hands of the campus — has largely remained on the margins of history.

The ailing infrastructure of the park today is evidence of 54 years of neglect by UC Berkeley. The planter beds, benches and stage that are in the park have been built and maintained by volunteers and park residents. On the other hand, plans for dismantlement have consistently been carried out by UC Berkeley, including the bulldozing of trees and arbors in 2011, a heavy-handed ‘tree pruning’ in 2018 and the removal of a clothing donation box constructed by students in 2019.

The most recent development proposed for the park is a green space walled in by new buildings, complete with a commemoration (read: eulogy) of the often unacknowledged history of the park as well as supportive housing run by a nonprofit on a ground lease. The supportive housing has been cited by many as indelible evidence of administrators’ goodwill toward the homeless community at the park, but few have considered that there is no guarantee the current park community will be rehomed in the supportive housing.

The supportive housing is a bone being unapologetically tossed by those who could offer a lease on any of their properties any day of the week to any number of nonprofits looking to do well in the world. Unfortunately, the supportive housing proposal does not seem to be the first priority for Capital Strategies.

In the words of Chancellor Carol Christ, we ought to “honor the rich history and important legacy of People’s Park, while reimagining it as a place where all people can come together.” Would this not look like redistributing some of the long-withheld resources to the park that the rest of campus enjoys? Would it not include expanding the one-man social worker outreach program to better support the unhoused individuals who use the park? Would it not mean more actively teaching the history of the park?

The current challenges that People’s Park presents are opportunities for us to act together for the community, not risk yielding to defunct theories of urban renewal and anti-homeless prejudice. Alternatives exist, and the battle isn’t over yet; the regents still have to approve the project “later this year.” The protest at People’s Park on Jan. 29th, during which students tore down the newly erected fences and brought them to Sproul Hall, sent a strong message: Students support the park and they will take action as a true community.

Giancarlo Tucci-Berube is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying comparative literature.