This article is part of the USSO special series Resilience/Renewal: Shifting Landscapes in American Studies
Visiting People’s Park in Berkeley, California, for the first time, as I did in September of last year, is a visually arresting experience. As I walked through the park’s entrance on Dwight Way, just south of the University of California campus, it almost felt like I had entered the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. Many of the trees that I had seen in photos of the park during happier times had been cut down; a colony of tents housing some of the city’s homeless residents lay in the far corner; and big, graffiti-scrawled yellow diggers and other heavy machinery were stationed menacingly on the park’s recreational areas. For a public space that came to represent the idealism of the 1960s, the sight of all this destruction and decay seemed like a dramatic fall from grace.
Then again, just like the ideals of the people who created and continue to maintain it, People’s Park has always been a contested and precarious place. In the spring of 1969, a group of Berkeley students and residents decided to transform an unused 2.8-acre plot of land, located a mile southeast of downtown Berkeley, into a recreational area. The idea was to create an antidote to what was considered the University’s restrictive and stifling academic environment. The park’s creators envisioned a new green space that would be open to all, where genuine free speech could flourish. The end result was a fitting product of the contemporary political environment in the student community at Berkeley. Throughout the 1960s, UCB had been one of the nation’s epicentres of left-wing student activism. UCB was, in 1964, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, a pivotal mobilization of the New Left which emerged in response to the University’s suppression of political activity on campus. Meanwhile, the campus was also a key venue for the anti-Vietnam War movement, including a mass student-led demonstration at the end of April 1969 which took place at People’s Park itself. [i]
However, the authorities were hostile to the People’s Park project from the beginning. Weeks after its construction, city and university police forces—spurred on by Governor Ronald Reagan’s draconian approach to law enforcement—brutally attacked a large crowd of protesters resisting plans to demolish the park. Reagan had unexpectedly won 1966’s gubernatorial election by channelling anti-Free Speech Movement backlash, promising to ‘clean up the mess in Berkeley.’[ii]The incident resulted in the death of one and the injury of many others, an episode that became known as ‘Bloody Thursday.’[iii]
Now, the site is facing more existential uncertainty. Since Bloody Thursday, several more ultimately unsuccessful attempts to destroy the park were made. But now People’s Park is dealing with perhaps its biggest threat since that notorious day over fifty years ago. The University still owns the land the park was created on, and it wants to build student accommodation on the site. In August last year, the plans were close to fruition. Police cordoned off the perimeter of the park, making way for demolition to begin. Soon after, diggers entered the site and trees were cut down. However, further demolition work was stalled thanks to the fierce resistance of the community involved with the park, including a demonstration at the University campus and an occupation of the park itself. The park’s fate is now in limbo as the appeals court hears from a legal challenge against the project by the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group.[iv]
I had come to Berkeley at this critical moment to explore the park and its community, and to find out what the future of the site might hold. After walking around the park for a while, I took a stroll two blocks north to Sproul Plaza in the heart of the UCB campus. There I met David Ocasio, a member of the diverse community of activists and residents fighting against the park’s destruction. Like many, Ocasio is passionate about People’s Park, in part because it helped him in a time of need. He first encountered the site through Food Not Bombs, an independent global collective that serves free vegan meals to anyone, and whose Berkeley branch frequently operates in People’s Park. ‘I was skating around the city with no money, [and] they were feeding the homeless. I got in line and asked, “Can I eat too?” They feed people, no questions asked. I love the idea that someone could be starving to death and run into this park and be OK…I highly value that.’[v]
I ask Ocasio what he thinks of the argument made by those sympathetic to the University’s plans that however noble providing support for the poor might be, the University should be allowed to do whatever it wants with its property. He is unimpressed by this logic, suggesting that the site’s cultural and historical significance should transcend the whims of property developers. ‘They own a historical landmark, it’s not like they own a useless field…[so] it’s their job to preserve it.’[vi]
Much of the park’s value boils down to its links to an important moment in the history of the 1960s counterculture—ties the author and veteran People’s Park activist Ron Jacobs has described as the ‘living history’ of the site.[vii] Although the park’s character and social mission have evolved over the years, this symbolic status has remained constant. Today, recognition of this heritage comes from far beyond the local community. Last year, the National Register of Historic Places added People’s Park to its list of sites it considers ‘worthy of preservation.’.[viii] However, while this acknowledgement adds moral weight to the park’s cause, it has no legal clout, meaning it does not in itself stop the University from persevering with its project.
Meanwhile, the University argues that its plans will help address the city’s housing and homelessness crises. Thanks to emergency support provided by the federal and state governments during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were approximately fifty fewer rough sleepers on the streets of Berkeley in 2022 in comparison to 2019—a 5% drop.[ix] However, because of local discrepancies in resources and funding, the number of homeless people across the whole of Alameda County (which includes Berkeley and nearby Oakland) rose by approximately 22%, reflecting the grim post-pandemic picture in California overall.[x]
As well as providing accommodation for 1,100 students—thereby freeing up space in Berkeley’s own housing stock—UCB has promised to construct a separate building on the site devoted to ‘supported housing,’ which would provide economically precarious people with lodging and social services. The University also says it will collaborate with local organisations to provide shelter for the people currently living in tents in People’s Park.[xi]
The tent encampment on the site is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until early 2020, the park was closed at nightfall and rough sleeping on the site was forbidden. These rules were relaxed, however, in response to outbreaks of COVID-19 among the homeless during California’s first lockdown.[xii] Since then, members of Berkeley’s homeless community have lived on the site semi-permanently. It is a sobering and shocking sight, a bleak illustration of how poverty and inequality plague one of America’s richest states.[xiii] The location of People’s Park, a couple of blocks from the main campus of one of the most prestigious universities in the country, makes the contrasting fortunes of California’s citizens feel even starker.
Shortly after my visit to Berkeley, I asked Mr Jacobs via email what he thought of the University’s promise to address the city’s housing crisis. ‘I think it’s a lie,’ he argued. ‘All too often, the talk of affordable housing comes down to the question of “affordable to whom?” Usually, that doesn’t mean people who are part of what is called the precariat. Also, there are other sites the University owns in Berkeley they could develop [instead].’[xiv] The history of urban renewal in Berkeley gives Jacobs reason to be sceptical. The city is one of numerous American metro areas to have enacted single-family zoning laws. These have expanded housing availability for wealthy nuclear families and made it more difficult for those on lower incomes to find an affordable place to live.[xv] As a result, socioeconomic and racial diversity in the city have steadily declined over the last few decades. There are, for example, approximately 50% fewer African Americans living in Berkeley now than there were fifty years ago.[xvi]
So, what ultimately explains the University’s determination to destroy the park? Besides the obvious financial incentives, perhaps the simple answer is that it has long been a nuisance for the University. People’s Park is, to all intents and purposes, a local anomaly. For over fifty years, it has stubbornly refused to surrender to the pressures associated with its lucrative location and the broader picture of gentrification in the area. As one of the largest property owners in the city, it is a situation the University itself has contributed to.[xvii] Meanwhile, the park’s anarchic organisational structure and (currently) haphazard appearance are unpleasant—embarrassing, even—for a juggernaut of an institution that has a prestigious reputation to maintain.[xviii]
As for the future of the park, Jacobs’s outlook is both despondent and optimistic. ‘The part that makes me angry is the wanton destruction undertaken by the University and the city (at least tacitly). The part that makes me feel positive is the response of the park’s defenders in the Bay Area and around the world who jumped into action to stop the destruction…I can only say I hope it survives.’ [xix]
[i] Rae Alexandra, “A Brief History of the Never-Ending Battle for People’s Park, KGED, 5 August 2022. https://www.kqed.org/arts/13917145/a-brief-history-battle-peoples-park-berkeley-protests
[ii] Jeffery Khan, “Ronald Reagan launched political career using the Berkeley campus as a target”, NewsCenter, UC Berkeley News, 8 June 2004. https://newsarchive.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2004/06/08_reagan.shtml. See also Gerard J. De Groot, “Ronald Reagan and Student Unrest in California, 1966-1970, Pacific Historical Review 65.1, (Feb., 1996): 107-129.
[iii] Tom Dalzell, The Battle for People’s Park, Berkeley 1969 (Heyday: Berkeley, CA, 2019)
[iv] Alexandra, “A Brief History of the Never-Ending Battle for People’s Park”.
[v] David Ocasio, interview with author, 20 September 2022
[vii] Ron Jacobs, “Save People’s Park: An Open Letter to the City Council of Berkeley, CA”, Counter Punch, 4 August 2022. https://www.counterpunch.org/2022/08/04/save-peoples-park-an-open-letter-to-the-city-council-of-berkeley-ca/
[viii] Jonathan Hale & Lance Roberts, “People’s Park entered into the National Register of Historical Places”, The Daily Californian, 1 June 2022. https://www.dailycal.org/2022/06/01/peoples-park-entered-into-national-register-of-historical-places
[ix] Supriya Yelimeli, “Berkeley’s homeless population dropped 5% during the pandemic, report says”, Berkeleyside, 16 May 2022. https://www.berkeleyside.org/2022/05/16/berkeley-homeless-population-2022
[x] Dani Anguiano, “Homelessness has risen 70% in California’s capital. Inside the staggering emergency”, The Guardian, 3 November 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/nov/03/california-capital-homelessness-emergency-midterm
[xi] People’s Park Housing, “Sheltering and service for those currently living in People’s Park, UC Berkeley. https://peoplesparkhousing.berkeley.edu/rodewayinn
[xii] Vivien Ho, “What happened when California tried to fix its homelessness crisis as the pandemic arrived”, The Guardian, 31 December 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/dec/31/california-homelessness-initiative-faltered-project-roomkey-pandemic
[xiii] Jialu Streeter, “Homelessness in California: Causes and Policy Considerations”, Stamford Institute for Public Policy Research. https://siepr.stanford.edu/publications/policy-brief/homelessness-california-causes-and-policy-considerations
[xiv] Ron Jacobs, email interview with the author, 10 October 2022
[xv] Erin Baldassari and Molly Solomon, “The Racist History of Single-Family Home Zoning”, KQED, 5 October 2020. https://www.kqed.org/news/11840548/the-racist-history-of-single-family-home-zoning
[xvi] “City of Berkeley, Alameda County”, Bay Area Census. http://www.bayareacensus.ca.gov/cities/Berkeley.htm
[xvii] Emily Bi, “Carol Christ must acknowledge US Berkeley’s role in gentrifying the city”, The Daily Californian, 11 September 2018. https://www.dailycal.org/2018/09/11/carol-christ-must-acknowledge-uc-berkeleys-role-in-gentrifying-the-city
[xviii] Public Affairs, “UC Berkeley remains the No. 1 public university in the world”, Berkeley News, 3 November 2022. https://news.berkeley.edu/2022/11/03/uc-berkeley-remains-the-no-1-public-university-in-the-world/
[xix] Jacobs, interview with the author