Trees in People’s Park being cut down while a UC police officer looks on.

Trees in People’s Park being cut down. (Ted Friedman/Berkeleyside)

At 4 a.m. on December 28, the University of California cut down 40 trees in People’s Park, arguing that they endangered public safety, or at least blocked the light. The “long-deferred maintenance”, as a UC Berkeley statement describes it, was initiated without any warning to neighbors, park supporters, and community members. In the weeks since, the University’s demolition of the trees has continued—as of the end of January, they have cut down at least 42 trees.

But trees, especially the trees in People’s Park, have standing. They are not only part of the park’s landmark application, they are included in an earlier memorandum of agreement from 1979 which included University promises, among others, to give notice before any further university efforts to disturb the community park, People’s Park, which was just ten years old at the time.

The University paved the west end of the park without warning in 1979 in an attempt to turn it into a UC-only fee lot instead of the free community space it had been. The community occupied the west end, tore out the asphalt, and a very wise mayor, Gus Newport, avoided conflict by making sure that the police were restrained so that the community could re-organize the west end into the community garden it is today. A later mayor, Shirley Dean used this same tactic after another University threat to the park, quietly commenting that she wasn’t sure the city would be able to provide the University with any mutual aid.

The mutual agreement from 1979 was strong enough that when in the early 1980’s a University work crew destroyed a couple of trees, David Axelrod—one of the park’s gardeners as well as a park attorney and a musician—grabbed one of the felled trees by the roots and dragged it all the way from the Park to the campus. He dragged it straight into the chancellor’s office.

Trees are comfort, beauty, respite, joy. They celebrate each season, they suffer mistreatment, and they help us mark the longevity of some of what matters in life.

“You can’t go in there,” he was told, since the chancellor was having a meeting, but he went in anyway, dragging the tree behind him. He gave the group around the table, including Assistant Chancellor Chenoweth, a piece of his mind about the destruction. Axelrod had spent many hours documenting each plant in the park as part of an inventory for the park’s Native Plant project, which carefully mapped the plants and identified them by both their common and botanic names.

Chenoweth apologized personally to David in front of the whole meeting. Chenoweth acknowledged that the University had violated their agreement with community, claimed that he had had no idea what the maintenance crew was doing, and reparations were made to the park. It is especially worth thinking about today, when the current chancellor apparently has no idea of the existence of a memorandum which is still, according to Axelrod, legally binding.

Axelrod’s compilation and inventory of the native plants indicates that the east end is divided into 19 separate native plant community groups: the redwood forest section, the closed-cone pine section, the pygmy forest subsection, the palm desert oasis, the Douglas fir forest section, the north coast scrub and sea bluff section, the great basin section, the sierra forest section, the oak woodland section, the Big Sur bed subsection, mixed evergreen forest section, the Monterey bed subsection, the Oregon bed subsection, the streamside riparian woodland section, the hardwood forest section, the island scrub section, the chaparral section, and the Berkeley Mills bed subsection.

(David Axelrod)

This inventory, available in the landmark application itself, needs to be used to re-inventory the damage the University has done so that we can begin to replant it and honor the work gone before. We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who worked to create this beautiful, educational illustration of native plant communities and to document it so faithfully so that we have a clear path to restoration. You can see from Axelrod’s map the enormous amount of effort it took to accommodate different forest groups with different climate needs to such a small area in order to represent an entire state’s native plant communities. Assistant Chancellor Chenoweth certainly saw that the University had violated a legal accord, and that the Native Plant Project was a community effort worth respect.

If you’re inclined to support respectful treatment of the park and the community that built it, it is clearly time, 40 trees later, to pick up the phone and discuss the matter with your mayor and council representative. Their numbers are clearly listed on the City of Berkeley’s website, and in the front of the phone book with the other government numbers. They know what some of us think already about gratuitous destruction of natural and park landscapes. But they may not have heard from you. We need what we once had, a commission where park issues are addressed respectfully in daylight rather than in unilateral, midnight stealth.

Trees are comfort, beauty, respite, joy. They celebrate each season, they suffer mistreatment, and they help us mark the longevity of some of what matters in life. A tree in the park seen by someone walking by might be just a beautiful tree. But the person who planted it sees the day it was planted, hears the music that was playing, remembers the people who helped. That person sees something quite different when suddenly it is ten feet tall. And feels something quite different when it is removed because, according to the University, it is blocking the light. Another term for that, after all, is providing shade. 

Berkeley’s city landmark, People’s Park, is internationally renowned as one of the few monuments to the anti-war movement, a symbol of free speech, a living monument to user-development, a widely used and beloved community resource, and a treasure. Make sure your city council representative and your commissioners, who might be new to their roles, hear you say so. 

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