On May 8th, 1978, Associate Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs Ted Chenoweth signed a “Letter of Agreement” assuring People’s Park’s neighbors, users, and gardeners that they would be participants in “all matters relating to the use, maintenance and development of the People’s Park site and any tentative proposals for construction, public works, or other significant changes affecting the Park before the Chancellor’s Office makes a decision on these matters.”
The contrast between today and May 8th, 1978 is striking. The current chancellor, Carol Christ, simply announced her proposal to construct housing on People’s Park without making any effort to include the community. In May of 1978, on the other hand, both parties wanted peace, cooperation, and an end to conflict.
One example of the university’s support of user development in the park was David Axelrod’s gardening class, “Urban Ecosystems.” Taught in 1997, the class was a university-approved native plant gardening project launched by Axelrod and other gardeners. The class was cutting edge in several ways. Recognizing the crucial ecological role of native plants was rarely part of educational curriculum, and most parks were designed with recreational rather than ecological goals in mind. People’s Park’s tradition of user-development was welcomed by the university, which gave UC credit for participation, and assisted with maintenance issues such as the provision of water and trash pick-up.
“Non-students were invited right from the start,” Axelrod said. “Also, we were putting on concerts. We would get the risers from Eshleman Hall, really rickety, and then an archi- tecture student, I think it was Carol Holding, had the idea of building a stage.”
They built the stage in early 1979. “The kick-off was April 14th, 1979—that was the first concert on the People’s Park stage,” Axelrod said.
The concerts could have created conflict. But on January 5, 1979 the “Letter of Agreement” was been strengthened by a “Letter of Understanding” signed by all parties—the university and park users. And later in 1987, famed Judge Henry Ramsey issued an order that required the University to allow amplified concerts.
The order stated that parks are a quintessential location for protected first amendment activities.
But perhaps the most important aspect of the official “Letter of Agreement” and the follow-up “Letter of Understanding” is this: C. Appropriate Use People’s Park is primarily reserved for educational, research and recreational purposes. Which follows this telling paragraph; “At such time as a broad-based People’s Park student community neighborhood association can organize itself, People’s Park Project/Native Plant Forum may request that the Chancellor’s Office transfer the above functions to said association.”
These documents clarify many things. But the main clarification is that the university, ten years into People’s Park’s history, seemed to have every intention of restoring the peace, involving the community and park users in any decisions regarding the park.
These agreements are legal documents, as is Judge Ramsey’s 1987 court order affirming the legality of amplified events in a public park. The letters state that the agreements between the park users and the university can only be cancelled in writing with a year’s notice.
Another document, an August 31st, 1979 “Coordinations for Use of
the University Property Commonly Called ‘People’s Park'” letter from Associate Vice Chancellor Chenoweth, offers his services to assist in any capacity after his retirement, saying “I expect to remain active as a member of the People’s Park Council, especially when the interest of the neighbors around the Park are involved.”
In this, the People’s Park’s 50th anniversary year, the City of Berkeley and the university should honor these original agreements which gave birth to many more over the course of People’s Park’s history.
The City of Berkeley, as well as the university and the larger community, need to refresh a sense of appreciation for our historical landmark—not only to avoid conflict, but also to help regenerate the possibilities for inclusion and cooperation illustrated by the early agreements, which reflect restorative justice at its best.
Carol Denney is a writer, poet, and musician who lives in the East Bay.