People’s Park in Berkeley, California, is successfully protected, at least for now, because of a large turnout of concerned people at the last “Advisory Board” meeting. The Park has been a 37 year struggle to create and protect a small zone of common land. The University of California, who mis-used eminent domain to destroy a hippie neighborhood where the Park now sits in the late sixties, is still trying to claim the land. Fortunately the Park has a rich history of blood, sweat and tears and dedicated “denizens” to protect it. The latest gentrification attempt by UC was a bad plan to “bulldoze the berms”, the raised edges of the People’s Park Community Garden. These mounds, the actual piles of asphalt from when the parking lot was torn up in 1979, are currently covered with fruit and oak trees, roses and manzanitas and grassy areas. They make a pleasant separation for the Park from the street. The reason for the proposed removal was to allow the police easy sight lines into the Park from their vehicles on the street.
In a packed room many spoke out about the folly of the berm removal proposal. The most graphic presentation used an ironing board, two cauliflower heads, a frying pan and a hammer to dramatically demonstrate how plans aimed at hard drug users negatively affect everyone. (Maybe you had to be there).
At the meeting the University stated that they “have no plans to bulldoze the berms at this time”. The large outpouring of people indicated that People’s Park is still an important issue to many. Some of those who attended were neighbors of the Park concerned about safety. Discussions in the hallway and since the meeting have opened up a dialogue about positive ways to approach these concerns.
The dynamic struggle that is People’s Park continues. The University and the Advisory Board (handpicked by the University with no community participation) are in the process of hiring a firm to “do a needs assessment” presumably as a preliminary to redesigning the Park. This of course, violates the spirit of how the Park was created and has been maintained through bottom up “user development”. In an ominous move, the advisory board just decided to hold a closed session with only a few members of the board deciding which architectural firm will be chosen. This narrowing of participation does not bode well and the Advisory Board is sincere in trying to gather broad community input. We will need to be vigilant and participatory to keep an eye on these proceedings. Advisory Board meetings are on the first Mondays of the month at 7pm at 2362 Bancroft in Berkeley.
In the meantime, the Park remains a unique and special place to spend a little time and experience the random human connections that it so often offers. One can get involved by gardening on Sunday afternoons, or volunteering with Food Not Bombs, or planning a concert, or playing chess or basketball or bringing free clothes or just talking with someone new. Viva El Parque de la Gente!