The Politics of People's Park
What's the deal with this park?
I get asked a lot how the People’s Park showdown fits within the political housing evolution of Berkeley. Its kind of irrelevant, honestly, it's a bit off the grid. I haven’t given much focus to People’s Park only because it’s University of California, Berkeley (UC) business, and it’s hard to defeat the UC when it comes to UC land. The university is proposing to build 1,100 dorms and 125 units for homeless people at the park and very low income people — among the largest student and low income housing projects ever proposed for a university where a sizable portion of it student body is housing insecure or homeless. Most homeless people accepted the housing but a few refused.
Undoubtedly, a lot of people favor People’s Park development because they see it as a form of slum clearance. The supportive comments on Berkeleyside’s article, on NextDoor, and a few I saw on Twitter makes it clear that the ordinarily stubborn NIMBYs are suddenly all down for housing development primarily because it’ll get rid of homeless people and the violent crime at the park. Most students who aren’t student activists think of the park as a place where lots of crimes and drugs take place.
I don’t have much feelings or relation to People’s Park because I grew up in West Berkeley, as far away from the park as you can get in this town. And our community is much different than Southside Campus. My grandfather who planted flowers there in ‘69 never bothered to tell me about it. Even when I took classes at UC Berkeley I wasn’t sure where the park was exactly. When I found it, I spent some time in it and it’s very much like Berkeley’s Civic Center park. It lacks amenities so it’s exclusively used by homeless people, it’s where homeless people gather and play and like any poor community it’s sometimes the site of violence — with homeless people as the victims.
But the UC is not some innocent victim. Taking advantage of the growing pro-housing attitudes of Berkeleyans after 50 years of a housing shortage, a student housing crisis and severe homelessness since the 1980s, they are finally attempting to settle their old score: People’s Park. I went over the People’s Park era in this blog but long story short:
People’s Park was originally a row of houses demolished for a temporary parking lot. At the height of the Counterculture Revolution, students and Southside local radicals occupied the lot to turn it into to park. UC ordered them to vacate and occupiers were brutalized by police officers. Since then, the park has hosted various revolutionary activities and homeless people in recent years while being owned by the reluctant UC.
The UC’s latest strategy of trying to redevelop park has been to propose one of the biggest housing packages and homeless housing ever proposed in the city. And now many Berkeleyans seem quietly supportive of the new housing at the park, and it is difficult to envision the kind of uprising happening now that happened in 1969 because that was a much different Berkeley. Berkeley in the ‘60s was a town that had a huge immigration of youths coming into it, a UC student population whose primary issue was free speech, cheap rents and a lot of housing, and this occurred during the Counterculture Revolution and anti-Vietnam War movement.
Today there’s no major anti-war activity occurring in Berkeley. Berkeley’s housing shortage has turned the city into a giant retirement town with a little district for college kids. The UC student body’s crisis of today is housing availability, with many sleeping in their cars and overcrowded conditions — the very last kind of students to be protesting dormitories. So far the resistance has been a lot of the old school activists, homeless activists, local teenagers, ecology and social science majors at UC Berkeley. Most of whom motivated by opposing the UC.
The gist I get from the people around here is mostly passive support or indifference. And while the ordinarily divided Berkeley between YIMBY and NIMBY would certainly salivate at another battle, the homelessness and numerous crime reports about the park have created enough agreement about its redevelopment across ideological lines. According to a UC-conducted poll (which may obviously be biased) about 68% of students supported its development into housing. But to understand what’s going on here let’s go to another project for a minute.
At the beginning of the year, the UC decided that they’d build a massive dorm project for students in downtown on top of some rent controlled apartments. Unlike People’s Park, this received strong opposition from the City Council and many activists including myself. I loved the housing project but the state law that I helped pass required that demolishing rent controlled housing required replacement housing, and the UC — incidentally exempt through oversight — didn’t follow this law.
After being invited to an eviction protest, I worked for months with state legislators to try and prevent the UC from going through with demolition without replacement, but I felt like ant against a mountain. The tenants were given compensation and their home was quickly demolished without further opposition. This was remarkably bad behavior by the UC, and it left a bad taste in my mouth on how they approach housing.
In contrast to the Walnut tenants, homeless people at People’s Park were offered housing in the motels and transitional permanent housing. Most accepted but a few didn’t want it and stayed. The defenders of People’s Park charge that the housing offered is coercive and denies homeless people autonomy — including the right to be houseless. But if the deal was so much better here, then why are people going to protest this, you may ask.
Here’s the key point: the battle of People’s Park is really a battle over culture, not housing or green space. It’s always been the battlefield between anti-UC radical activists and the UC. The merits of the project or the performance in relocation services are completely irrelevant to the park defenders. Many of the rhetorical arguments against development by park defenders like “we dont have a housing shortage / go build in Albany and Richmond” stuff is clearly wrong but not their primary motivation.
People’s Park is the heart of the city’s Revolutionary resistance history and a memorial of the anti-war, free speech uprising. Every radical leftist that went to UC Berkeley can trace the origins of their understanding of revolutionary local activity to People’s Park. Defending it against the UC’s development plans has been a rite of passage. Since it’s occupation in ‘69 People’s Park has always been a symbol of anti-authority action.
Naturally, if you don’t care about this history or don't think it should be memorialized with the current state of the park, then you wouldn't sympathize with the protesters and that’s a huge chunk of the city. I like the project and the fact that all homeless residents were offered permanent housing. I do not like that projects this good get chosen for the most controversial site in all of Berkeley. This project — if built — will make a big dent in the housing crisis but I wish it hadn’t been this site because we all knew hoards of riot police will go to war with the activists over it. The one and only site where this would’ve occurred. Regardless of how you feel about the development it’s important to reflect on why these controversial sites keep getting the good housing while the offices and sports facilities don’t.
It’s worth remembering there are two People’s Parks, not just one. People’s Park 2 was renamed Ohlone Park and it’s the City of Berkeley’s most popular urban park. Like People’s Park 1, it was taken forcibly by counterculture activists, but it was taken from BART, not UC, and given to the City. Then the city redeveloped it into an incredible park that no one could ever fathom demolishing to build on. But because the city owned the park, it was fixed up with facilities and amenities that made it popular.
In contrast, the UC neglected to fix People’s Park 1 into a real park and let it decay on purpose with poor vegetation and no park amenities. This was clearly intentional with the goal of creating stigma towards the park. When it became the site of various crimes UC won the long game of popularizing opposition or indifference to the park by city residents. Regardless of how you feel about the park, it’s obvious that UC let it turn to shit on purpose.
UC doesn’t have to build on the park. They have many parcels around Berkeley they could’ve built on, including the option of acquiring parcels. Yes they get opposed by NIMBYs but UC owns the land, who cares? But UC purposely preserves their vacant and non-controversial projects for their most unsympathetic development plans, like offices and classrooms on Hearst and Shattuck, or a volleyball court in Claremont. If they had proposed offices, a pool, or a sports complex on People’s Park or the Walnut Tenants, there would be no support — passive or otherwise — for the development. So they use the most sympathetic and one of the most impactful housing projects ever in the city’s history for its most controversial location. And causing passive support and infighting is what was designed to do and what it succeeded at doing.
I have no idea how UC plans to build on the park, though. The protesters will continue to try and obstruct the bulldozers. I suppose the UC strategy is to run back and forth building bit by bit. It’s clear that the administration will try to avoid explicit brutality or risk another uprising, but these incessant news helicopters are already starting to irritate the hell out of people. If the protests escalates then the passive supportive residents may become opposed to the UC just to get some peace and quiet — just like what happened in 1969. Berkeley needs a lot more dense housing like the proposed homes at People’s Park but I'm not going to play foot soldier in the UC’s ideological war with this particular site here.
I welcome pushback however against or for the development.
Clarification: I edited the ending to clarify it's really my opinion here. Additionally, advocates have explained that “homeless people” is more respectful than “the homeless” and article has been amended to reflect this.