UC Berkeley has been facing, for some time, a viral scourge. There is a pointed dearth of affordable student housing, too many predatory landlords and a tenth to two-tenths of its students must attend classes without adequate shelter.
There is a very natural solution to this problem.
To the side of the UC Berkeley campus is a picturesque 2.5-acre field that is virtually unused. As far as we know, no one is an official resident of the prime real estate location. It is close to campus, cafes, restaurants and libraries. It is the perfect spot to build plentiful student housing.
I am, of course, talking about the chancellor’s mansion on 2400 Hearst Avenue.
On orientation day at UC Berkeley, one of the first Cal-jokes I heard concerned the existence of Nobel laureate parking lots: that parking in Berkeley is so bad, one needs a Nobel Prize to get a parking spot.
Sophomore year, I found a continuation of this joke: There is, in fact, also a Nobel laureate bicycle parking spot in front of the Free Speech Movement cafe: a golden upside-down U-shaped hunk of metal sealed to the concrete road.
But junior year was the best: a friend of mine started using the Nobel laureate parking lots, bicycle and car, despite not having won any Nobel Prize, because the cops just don’t mess with cars parked on those golden lots.
Jokes aside, unlike Nobel Prizes, which are actually deserved by our excellent professors, the chancellor’s mansion is but a symbol of white privilege. It is completely undeserved.
Undeserved, and unoccupied since at least 2017. The Chancellor Carol Christ, does not, in fact, live in the chancellor’s mansion.
Nicholas Dirks, the previous chancellor, infamously erected a million-dollar fence around the mansion in 2015 because he was too scared of student protests. It is dead quiet there.
People’s Park, on the other hand, is bustling with human activity all the time, always-already. Basketball, Food Not Bombs, rock concerts, sleeping poets, performing shamans, divine blessings and dad jokes literally flow out of the park. The bathrooms are welcome to anyone of any gender or sexuality. Literally anyone is welcome there to eat, play, pray, sleep, take a drink of water, a wash or some green.
Nicholas Weaver, a computer science lecturer, recently tweeted that he, a six-foot-something white male who is in reasonable shape, is too scared to walk through the park. The cowardice on display here by Weaver is in hilarious pathetic cacophony with that of Dirks’. They are scared of trans and gay people, scared of the gods, scared of the righteous fury of students and the community.
To paraphrase Mario Savio, we know when the workings of the machine get so odorous, we cannot take part, cannot even passively take part.
A few months ago, I was at People’s Park, attending a protest to save the park. This was around the time the cops put fencing there and the student community rose up to take the fencing down and deliver them to the steps of Sproul Hall.
Some of the protesters there of Native descent suggested we start a fire. Fire, they said, brings us together. Fire would release the spirit of the park, bond us and warm us. After several rounds of voice-raising and voting, we decided not to start a fire. It was a strategic decision we made democratically.
That time, the strategic decision was to not start a fire. The next time might be different.
One frequently cited argument for building on People’s Park is that it is “no longer being used how it was meant to be used.”
To this, I counter: What else is People’s Park meant to be used for but for solidarity among the people, for power to the people and for the preservation and continuation of its rich, righteous history? Or do the real estate developers mean to say that, to them, People’s Park is meant to be exploited for profit, like any other piece of real estate?
UC Berkeley must build affordable student housing. But students experiencing housing insecurity do not, in general, live in flashy new constructions.
As per the People’s Park Committee‘s response to the Chancellor, “It is likely that any student housing built will be snapped up by high-income students who can afford to live in the market-rate, non-university housing in Berkeley.”
Campus says the legacy of People’s Park will be “commemorated” despite the construction. The Committee responds that “reducing decades of history to a “shrine” is horrifying, belittling and disrespectful to the Berkeley community at large.
The only thing that the campus would be commemorating is its success in gentrifying the local area, while the storied past of the park is buried under concrete and turf.
People’s Park must be wholly preserved. To build student housing there verges on absurd.
Here is the proposal. Deconstruct the chancellor’s mansion, a symbol of division between students and administration, a symbol of racial capitalism wrapped in grotesque plantation architecture. Build student housing there.
After all that, after we have torn it down, after we have replaced it with affordable student housing, the site may deserve the name, University House.