Demolishing care, counterculture in People’s Park

Illustration of a stately tree flanked by People's Park signs, wildflowers, and string lights
Soma Chu/File

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People’s Park was constructed to foster a culture of care for Berkeley’s community. The founders of the park intended the lot to be an area of open interaction — a space to exchange local culture.

However, UC Berkeley has decided to build student dormitories on the park, with the compromise that it will house the current residents of the park in motels and also include apartments for previously houseless individuals in the projected dorming spaces.

While this solution might seem to appease all, it cannot adequately address campus’s need for affordable housing, nor reconcile the erasure of history in the park. 

Deliberation over People’s Park has dominated local housing discourse throughout the decades. People’s Park has frequently been included in the discussion of campus expansion. 

Following the creation of the park in the late ’60s and early ’70s, campus reacted with a statement declaring the construction of a soccer field. 

Former UC Berkeley chancellor Earl Cheit allocated $1.3 million to purchase the lot, citing campus’s need for this space to build a soccer field. 

After the official purchase of the lot, campus demolished the off-campus housing that occupied the property to make way for the planned field, uprooting the dozens of students who had been living there in the midst of their final examinations

Sim Van der Ryn, professor emeritus of architecture and former chair of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Housing and the Environment, however, alleged at the time that Cheit actually wanted to “clean up that area and get rid of the people living there who are a threat to the stability of the University.”

To this, the park founders and activists alleged that the decision to build on the park would disappoint young liberals and expose the true expansionist and monetary motives of campus.

Despite the supposed immediate urgency for a soccer field, the site remained undeveloped following its purchase in 1967. This was the first instance of contention over the lot, and reflected the varying plans for utilization for the space.

In April 1969, the founders of People’s Park, a band of activists, entered the conversation about its use of space with the intent of transforming the lot, at that point derelict with abandoned cars, into a shared space.

On Sunday, April 20, 1969, the construction began with the help of hundreds of “street people” — an amorphous assemblage of people who share few similarities.

There was no hierarchy of order; rather, those who wanted to participate were welcomed and encouraged. The park grew from root values of mutual care and respect. It was an opportunity to materialize a vision of shared space and community. 

The creators and laborers earned nothing more than a sense of community from their efforts. The prospect of love and care materialized the shared vision of People’s Park.

The park was an inclusive space where individuals of all walks of life gathered to beautify the lot. It quickly gained support from many locals and proved to be a grassroots democratic movement

At this point, however, the park debate had become extremely polarized in the Berkeley community. The divergence of visions for the lot gave way to confrontation in the years following. 

While campus continued striving to privatize the space, time and again, park supporters have fervently defended it as a space for the people, deterring campus from fruitfully pursuing construction. 

The defense of the park reflects the idea that privatization restrains love. By maintaining the park as a public space, people are permitted to come and go as citizens and individuals. The preservation of the park is an act of care. Privatizing and gentrifying the lot would only lead to exclusion for the sake of gain and reputation. 

The founders of the park envisioned a space of free interaction and the absence of coercive institutions. In this vision, the public land has a politicized foundation that can be transformed based on the politicos that choose to enter the space.

Campus, however, views the space as an area that could be planned, orderly and safe. These visions are not unique to Berkeley, but rather a reflection of the conventional ways in which public spaces are viewed in contemporary cities. The surveillance of People’s Park reflects a larger paradigm in which public spaces exclude houseless people and political activists.

By losing access to gathering spaces, however, these individuals become invalidated as members of society. UC Berkeley’s actions to claim People’s Park reflect a larger shift toward privatized interactions and politics and away from the open communication and opportunity for mutual aid public spaces afford.

The decision to build upon the park indicates a deprioritization of the larger Berkeley community, not only led by campus, but also followed by the people.

Campus has long planned to utilize this space and has fought for decades to construct on this land, but has been met with resistance each time. Developing People’s Park erases a history of activism and care in the community. 

Through its historical and cultural significance in the Free Speech Movement and grassroots democracy, this space has served as a symbol of love, unity and care for all Berkeley communities for decades and should remain as such.

Sophia Licata is a junior at UC Berkeley.