Opinion: Building housing on People’s Park, the heart of Berkeley, will destroy its soul

Berkeley officials and the visitors’ bureau revere the city’s history of protest and free speech but aren’t willing to fight to save People’s Park.

While it is currently popular to give thanks and respect to those on whose historic shoulders we stand, the words of thanks and respect that the city of Berkeley bestows upon Berkeley’s movements and activists of the ’60s reveal the ironic hypocrisy of a city ready to hand over People’s Park, the epicenter of Berkeley’s political soul, to the University of California, the very institution against which those activists battled for peace, freedom, and equality.
The “Visit Berkeley” website contains several of these accolades to which I am referring. For instance, “Berkeley’s Historic Telegraph Avenue District is revered as the place where the counterculture came to Berkeley.” On that same page, the connection of Berkeley to its proud history is said to rise to such a state that “free speech and flower power are forever in Berkeley’s “DNA.”

I would certainly be drawn to visit a city that so “revered” its progressive history that it wanted to be identified with that history “forever.” Yet the near-total absence of any mention of People’s Park on “Visit Berkeley” should alert those who remain committed to social justice to a new brand of doublespeak prevalent, these days, in Berkeley.

At the book release for Tom Dalzel’s The Battle for People’s Park, Berkeley 1969, at the Brower Center on May 15, Mayor Jesse Arreguín said he was influenced by Berkeley’s Free Speech and anti-Vietnam War campaigns of the 1960s. Mayor Arreguín spoke of how those events “inspired my lifelong commitment to fighting for social justice.” So like the “Visit Berkeley ” site, Mayor Arreguín claims to have a deep connection to the events of the 60s that took place on Telegraph Avenue and People’s Park. Yet despite these professed bonds, none rise to the point of demanding the University of California preserve and honor, not destroy, People’s Park by building student housing on the site.

However difficult it may be to understand why so few in the power positions of the city have come out for the intact preservation of People’s Park, the motivation of the University of California to bury this green, open space sanctuary in concrete is obvious. So long as People’s Park exists as a green open space, open to all, created and stewarded by activists, citizens, and students, then UC’s 1968 role in the fraudulent use of state power* to take the homes of over 30 Berkeley citizens, in a desperate attempt to extinguish the counterculture and democratic movements of the 1960’s remains a very open reminder of where the UC stands on such questions of social justice.

Chancellor Carol Christ’s current attempt to reassert UC domination of People’s Park brings to mind Chancellor Heyns’ response to Sim Van der Ryn, then head of the College of Environmental Design at UC, when Heyns was asked why the park was being fenced in on the morning of May 16, 1969.  Heyns’ response, according to the book Peoples Park Still Blooming, was “I’m just a janitor for the Regents,” Recognizing the Board of Regents, as the ultimate planner of all things UC, is critical insofar as that body was in 1969, and is to this day, an embodiment of the corporate elite in our country. Now, thanks to the Occupy movement, those elite are more understandably known as the 1% and, as such, they are bound to diminish, as completely as possible, all vestiges of radical progressive victories.

In discussing People’s Park at that Brower Center event, Mayor Arreguín recognized the significance of the seizure of UC land to build People’s Park as a victorious act of redress. One would guess that his appreciation of that significance was part of the reason he was against giving over People’s Park during his campaign of 2016. But it’s nearly 2020, and after three years as mayor it seems the gown has flipped the town. His current position recalls words used with a directly opposite meaning 50 years ago: “Take the Park.”

With his defeatist “Take the Park” attitude the mayor has consigned People’s Park, once again, to UC bulldozers. Mayor Arreguín would now have us believe that “There is a place for a new vision of the park, one that builds on the values of creating a community gathering space.”

In reality, his vision destroys a valuable community space; his vision builds two large concrete boxes that eliminate most of the open space of the park forever. His vision eliminates all other visions for anything vaguely resembling a park or open space.

Relinquishing a future for People’s Park that truly respects Berkeley’s history is disrespectful to those freedom fighters of the 1960s who fought the University of California for the rights that we now enjoy. How terribly unfortunate that the presence of the poor and afflicted in People’s Park so limits this city’s vision, so defeats the great planning minds of Berkeley that Berkeley may soon be seen as having sold out its soul.


* Robert Scheer’s “Dialectics of Confrontation: Who ripped off the Park” (Ramparts: Aug. 1969) 45. Documents Regent Fred Dutton and UC administrators testimony that the land acquisition was to remove “hippie counterculture” not to build student housing or a soccer field and that Regents and Chancellor Heyns knew that there were no funds to build anything on Lot 1875-2 for at least 10 years.

Joe Liesner is a 20-year volunteer with Food Not Bombs and was in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration campaign.