When the university announced that People’s Park was being considered for student housing last year, they said it was a very low priority site due to its small size. Better sites still exist for development, including the Chancellor’s mansion, which the Homeless Student Union argues should be turned into a co-op for homeless students. It will be more expensive to develop People’s Park than other sites because there will be community protests that will lead to expensive delays. Why, then, is the university rushing to develop the park now?
I believe it is for the same reason they demolished the original housing in the 60s – to get rid of undesirables that reside there. There is nothing new about the university trying to develop the park. They have tried to turn People’s Park into a controlled, orderly place since its creation, nearly half a century ago. The housing crisis has merely provided them with another excuse to develop the park.
Before 1967, the block between Bowditch, Telegraph, Dwight, and Haste was filled with houses, old but well-constructed, which were mostly occupied by university students and professors. The UC Board of Regents wanted to clear the block and replace it with dorms or athletic fields. According to Terri Compost’s book People’s Park: Still Blooming, some park activists believe “it was hostility to the hippies rather than the urgent need for playing fields which motivated the University’s action.” Carol Denney wrote in an op-ed in 2017 that said “the 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. Certainly, State Assemblyman Don Mulford felt that way. He was quoted as saying: “we must get rid of the rat’s nest that is acting as a magnet for the hippie set and the criminal element.”
After the University seized the land through eminent domain, they quickly demolished the houses – and then they did nothing. For nearly a year, the lot served as an unofficial parking lot, still littered with the debris from the demolition – proof that the University had no real plans for the site. Instead, the community took matters into their own hands and created People’s Park.
Because of the severity of the housing crisis, maybe People’s Park should have housing on it. But if housing is built, it should be housing for the people served by the park, not another overcrowded dorm. Any housing on People’s Park should be 100% affordable to low-income people who are struggling to make ends meet in Berkeley. If it is student housing, it should be explicitly for the 10% of students who are housing insecure.
But before any decisions are made, the people who use People’s Park, especially the homeless, need to be sincerely involved in the process. If the University truly wants to ease the housing crisis, they need to work with the community to find points of consensus and compromise. Imposing its top down will on the park will only lead to further conflict.