A cartoon-like illustration. The first two panels contain a yellow flower. In the third panel, a large grey boot with the word "UC" on it stomps on the flowers
(Carol Denney)

People’s Park is a landmark.

The university doesn’t like to mention it, but it became a city landmark in 1984 “for its historic and cultural importance to the City of Berkeley.” The landmark designation is not necessarily protective, but it’s worth noting in a community being trained to ignore its own significant moments in history. The chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission behind the landmarking was a Republican who owned a local car repair shop, named Laurie Bright.

Creative autonomy was part of southside culture.

Even the City of Berkeley’ s official Southside Plan acknowledges this, noting the revolt over increasing traffic which “led to the placement of street barriers to protect adjoining neighborhoods from the Southside and its traffic.” The plan also says that “these independent artisans represent a creative autonomy that is a defining element of the Southside’s commercial district today.”

The university has nine other sites on which to build housing.

There is a ten-acre site at the site of the old Smyth-Fernwald apartments, just further up Dwight Way from the park. Across the street from Smyth-Fernwald, there are 130 acres owned by the university on the nearby Clark-Kerr campus. While there is already student housing at Clark-Kerr, its vast amounts of open space could accommodate much more. All of this makes the 2.7 acres at People’s Park an improbable choice to honestly try to address a housing crisis.

The block now known as People’s Park was acquired by a fraudulent use of eminent domain.

The public record says it all. University officials, according to their meeting minutes, were terrified of what was—according to W. J. Rorabaugh in his book Berkeley at War—”Telegraph in 1964,” an area near the campus that “was cosmopolitan, artistically aware, politically diverse, and open to new ideas.” 

But after its acquisition, the system-wide regents evaluated the university plans for the park, which alternated between sports courts, office space, and (ironically) housing. They didn’t vote UC Berkeley any funds to develop the bulldozed block. It was not a priority, according to the regents’ inaction. This is a problem, because establishing a priority is a crucial element in the use of eminent domain. Under Cal Code Civ Proc § 1245.220, eminent domain requires that a government agency “must adopt a formal resolution, also known as resolution of necessity, to acquire the property before commencing an eminent domain proceeding in court.” This formal resolution “must find (1) that the project for which the property is to be acquired is necessary; (2) that the property is necessary for the public project; (3) that the project is located in such a manner as to offer the greatest public benefit with the least private detriment.” The muddy, rebar-filled lot left behind for years after bulldozing the community housing was a nuisance to Berkeley’s southside. The land sat empty, and one day in spring community members gathered and built the park there that remains today.

People’s Park has cost lives—and changed lives.

It built at least one political career along the way as well; Ronald Reagan as the Governor of California used the anti-war movement as a contrast platform for his national ambitions. But it cost James Rector his life, Alan Blanchard his sight, and played a role in more deaths over the years if you’re willing to count Rosebud DeNovo, who broke into the Chancellor’s mansion as a protest and was shot in the back in 1992. For some of us it will always be the backdrop against which former Ashkenaz owner David Nadel lost his life to a gun. But for many people the park is the first place they ever built something together with others and watched a project move from an idea to fruition, whether it was a shingled freebox, a garden trellis, or a mural. “User development” remains the park’s guiding principle, as much as the university attempts to obscure the fact.

All of our parks, not just People’s Park, have evidence of homelessness and poverty.

And we don’t tear down our overpasses when a tent shows up underneath it. We can respect our parks and landmarks and demand that the university do its part to house its students. This is something the University of California has historically neglected. This neglect can be easily addressed without abusing the surrounding city, or its parks and treasured cultural wealth.

Carol Denney is a writer, poet, and musician who lives in the East Bay.