Berkeley’s People’s Park was born 50 years ago today

Fifty years ago today People’s Park was born, an important moment in the radical trajectory of Berkeley, the Bay Area, California and America in the 1960s.

The birth of the park on April 20 kick-started a tumultuous 25 days that culminated on Bloody Thursday (May 15) when the university retook the park with force. An ensuing protest saw Alameda County deputy sheriffs shoot and kill or seriously wound a number of bystanders, aerial tear gassing on May 20 and mass arrests a few days later, ending with a peaceful march by 30,000 through the streets of Berkeley on May 30.

My book, The Battle for People’s Park, Berkeley 1969 (Heyday), publishes on May 15, This is the first of several excerpts to be published by Berkeleyside.

April 20, 1969

It’s said that a small group met at Liane Chu’s Red Square dress shop on Dwight Way in April 1969 — seen above in May 1969 — and came up with the idea of a people’s park. Photo: Estate of Clay Geerdes

The conventional narrative about the founding of People’s Park is that a small group of men and women met at Liane Chu‘s Red Square dress shop on Dwight Way in April 1969 and, in a deus ex machina, fashion came up with the idea for a park. 

This much is true: on April 15, 1969, Michael Delacour, a blue-collar anti-war activist and ubiquitous figure on Telegraph Avenue, held an organizing meeting about the park at Red Square. Present were Wendy Schlesinger, John Algeo, Doug Bogen (later known as Doug Cooper), Paul Glusman (head of the one-man organization “Concerned Stalinists for Peace”), Stew Albert, Judy Gumbo and Curtis Rosa (universally referred to as “the old carpenter”) who had a shoji screen business.

Michael Delacour. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Wendy Schlesinger. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

They agreed to build a park in the busted-up vacant plot that Lot 1875-2 had become in the year-plus since UC Berkeley had demolished the homes and apartment buildings that had lined Haste, Bowditch and Dwight.

A year after the university removed the houses on what would be known as People’s Park, the area was a barren lot with large mud puddles and parked and abandoned cars. Photo: Alan Copeland

Wendy Schlesinger visited Telegraph Avenue merchants asking for donations. The money she raised would be used to buy sod. Stew Albert took the idea to the pages of the Berkeley Barb, Max Scherr’s underground weekly, writing under the name “Robin Hood’s Park Commissioner.”

Source: Berkeley Barb

The idea went public and it went big and it went fast.

Jon Read, Mike Lyon, Art Goldberg, Frank Bardacke, William Crosby, “Big Bill” Miller and “Super Joel” Tornabene joined the core committee that would build and defend the park.

Several hundred volunteers came to People’s Park on Sunday, April 20. From the start, the park attracted a cross-section of straights, political radicals, hippies and street people. Between April 20 and May 15, 1969, thousands of people spontaneously transformed the eyesore of a vacant lot into a pleasant, relaxing and slightly chaotic and messy park. Volunteers laid sod, planted flowers and trees and bushes, built an amphitheater, laid out winding brick paths, and installed swings and play structures.

This is an excerpt from Tom Dalzell’s forthcoming book, The Battle for People’s Park, which Heyday will publish on May 15. Watch for more coverage to mark the park’s 50th anniversary.