Opinion: The original housing in People’s Park

UC Berkeley’s plan to build housing in People’s Park is not the first time the university has proposed to interfere with the historic site, and we will rise up in protest again.

By Carol Denney

Carol Denney is an East Bay writer, a musician, and the Human Rights Editor for Street Spirit newspaper.

Berkeleyside writer Tracey Taylor can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that the proposal for housing in People’s Park is in any way “a first.” She’s young, and those among us who remember the university’s eviction of those who lived in the original housing on that block have long since gone grey.

But, long before People’s Park was a political punching bag, a joke to some and hallowed ground to others, it was a block full of low-income housing much like the surrounding neighborhood still has. It was older homes and bungalows full of students stunned to get eviction notices from their own university in the middle of finals.

But then, as now, the destruction of everything that existed on the Southside block between Bowditch, Telegraph, Dwight and Haste had everything to do with a war on culture.

Minutes of the meetings between university officials in the 1950s are living proof that the poetry, the music, the “radical” sexuality were terrifying to officials who wanted Cal to be more like Yale or Harvard. They were jealous of campuses like Stanford which didn’t have to labor under any connection to tie-dye.

So they acquired the land through eminent domain. They used a dubious argument that the university, “the state”, needed that land for, um, something. Sports courts, dorms, office space — the argument wasn’t too well-founded. Since there was plenty of empty office space, high vacancy rates, etc., the system-wide Regents didn’t vote for the UC Berkeley campus to get any money to do anything with the land. The community subsequently decided to “user-develop” it into a garden and play area.

So it backfired. Just as with the Free Speech Movement, an act of repression — a fraudulent use of eminent domain — gave birth to expression twice as fierce as the free-wheeling, spirited, ungovernable culture the UC administrators had hoped to displace.

Later, in 1984, People’s Park was landmarked by the City of Berkeley as historic. But it took decades for the University of California to use the phrase “People’s Park” in its official documents. And it may take another decade or two for the university to stop threatening to build on the park.

So, in the meantime, get out your guitars. Get out your poetry and your dance. Get out your freak flags and let them fly. Because, as frightening as these exotic weapons are, they are part of a powerful, prayerful renewal, not just for those of us who are old and grey, but for young, unbridled minds who feel it when the music builds and see it when the politicians flirt with selling their souls. We’re here for our park and its historical monument to all things creative, positive, unexpected, user-developed, inclusive and new.

When the bulldozers come for the park, we are ready to dance.