I have been immersed in the history of People’s Park in 1969 for the past year as part of a book I am doing for Heyday on the 50th anniversary of its creation. I feel that I know as much about the park’s early history as anyone. As Berkeley debates the future of the park and UC Berkeley pursues a plan to build a dorm that will house hundreds of students at the park, I hope that the debate is based on facts, not narratives that support a particular point of view or result. To that end, there is one narrative that I would like to debunk.
I often hear people say that People’s Park is a failed experiment, that the park’s advocates have given us a haven for homeless who are violent drug-users, that the park is a failed relic of the 1960s. Many blame the park’s founders and supporters and their counterculture values for the state of the park today.
I demur. The last time that the park’s founders and supporters exercised control over the park was in the early morning hours of May 15, 1969. They controlled the park for all of 25 days, and by most accounts, in those 25 days the park reflected the best values of the time and attracted volunteer builders from every facet of Berkeley. The university, then the city, and now the university again, have controlled the park for the last 49 years. If anyone is to blame for the condition of the park, it is not the idealists who built it, but the university, which neglects it.
As we drop the notion that park supporters are to blame for all that we don’t like about People’s Park, it is also useful to remember that the university supported a strikingly similar narrative in 1968 when it demolished the existing houses and apartments lining Haste, Bowditch, and Dwight. They spoke with alarm about the blight of the buildings, the shiftless and disruptive nature of the young people living there, and the need to clean up the South Campus and demolish the houses. Substitute 1969’s fears of hippies with 2018’s fear of the homeless, and you have remarkably parallel situations.
As the debate over the park’s future continues, I hope that we all recognize that the imperfections of the park as it exists are the sole responsibility of the university, and if we are to learn from the university’s past actions in trying to acquire and monetize the park, the university’s neglect of the park may well be simply an example of destruction by neglect.