Berkeley universities

People’s Park, once a symbol of peace, turns into a battleground in the housing war

BERKELEY, Calif. — For more than half a century, since activists created People’s Park in the spirit of peace and brotherhood, it has been a battleground.

Attempts by the University of California over the years to build on the land, which it owns, have never failed to inspire protests. The park has become a sacred symbol of resistance and 1960s idealism that this city has long embraced.

But these days, many associate People’s Park with something else Berkeley is famous for: the lack of affordable housing. The roughly 55 people sleeping in tents there are a stark illustration of California’s housing crisis, which has become particularly severe in college towns like Berkeley as universities continue to increase enrollment.

Last fall, riding shifting political winds on the issue, UC Regents voted to build accommodation below the market for some 1,100 undergraduates on the brushy 2.8-acre plot just off Telegraph Avenue.

Chancellor Carol Christ pointed out that UC Berkeley’s $312 million plan for “a renewed people’s park” included permanent, supportive housing for about 100 homeless residents. More than half of the park will remain open space and commemorate the site’s turbulent history.

Homeless tents are seen in People’s Park from this drone view in Berkeley, California on February 9, 2021. Jane Tyska/East Bay Times via Getty Images File

These characteristics were key to garnering support for the project, which Christ touted as a bold attempt to address the national homelessness crisis, as well as the chronic shortage of student housing at UC Berkeley. On March 9, she and Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín announcement that the university and the city would provide temporary accommodation in a local motel for those sleeping in the park.

“This is, we believe, much more consistent with the park’s founding ideals than its current state,” UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said.

People’s Park has long functioned as a sanctuary for Berkeley’s poor, where volunteers distribute hot meals and pick up discarded needles. Since the pandemic subsided and authorities resumed enforcing strict rules prohibiting people from sleeping in public places, the park has become one of the city’s last sprawling homeless encampments.

When construction begins this summer, those currently camping in the park will be offered accommodation at the Rodeway Inn, Christ and Arreguín said. The campus and the city have rented 42 rooms with kitchenettes and housekeeping for 18 months; a non-profit group will provide them with health care, counseling and help finding permanent housing.

Image: People's Park
People’s Park in Berkeley, California on September 28, 2021. Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images File

The move marked another step in the Chancellor’s effort to sell her ambitious vision for the iconic park, which the city opposed when she first unveiled it in 2018. But last year, Arreguín and the city council agreed to drop their legal objections to the People’s Park. plan and another for a 14-story luxury building to house transfer students after the university agreed to pay the city nearly $83 million over the next 16 years to cover the costs of police, fire safety and other services.

To make way for this latest project, the university demolished a 112-year-old rent-controlled building, prompting protests from displaced residents.

Similar clashes between residents and universities are happening across the country, said Davarian Baldwin, a professor of American studies at Trinity College in Connecticut, who wrote the book “In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Cities “.

“Students are being sent to cities for housing, amenities and recreation,” Baldwin said, adding that undergraduates would cram into single-family homes and annoy neighbors with beer-soaked parties.

In Berkeley, some neighborhood groups have filed lawsuits to stop the university from “engulfing” the city without considering the impact on traffic, noise, and other issues important to residents.

“We are advocating for the park on behalf of residents who desperately need green space,” said People’s Park Council member Max Ventura.

The California Supreme Court recently issued a controversial victory to one such resident group, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, which sued to block the university’s growth on environmental grounds.

The decision would have forced UC Berkeley to drastically reduce enrollment in the fall if not for an eleventh-hour reprieve on Monday when Gov. Gavin Newson signed a bill that will reverse the court order.

The move comes as the 10-campus UC system is under pressure to accept more low-income and racially diverse students without nearly enough housing for them. More than 16,000 University of California and California State University students were on waiting lists for housing this fall, according to a report by the Office of the Legislative Analyst.

The shortage has forced institutions to resort to measures such as allocate parking spaces 24 hours a day to students sleeping in their cars and planning “megadorms” with windowless bedrooms.

Berkeley is home to only about a fifth of its undergraduate students, fewer than any other UC campus. The University projects it will add about 12,000 students over the next 15 years and wants to build 11,700 beds to keep up with that growth.

His attempts to transform the site that is now People’s Park date back to the mid-1960s when the university used eminent domain to raze about 30 homes on a parcel a few blocks south of campus. With free speech and anti-Vietnam war movements raging, many believed the university’s claim that it needed the land to build dormitories was just a pretext to squeeze out the hippies. .

Image: People's Park
National Guardsmen stand guard on the other side of a steel mesh fence erected by University of California officials around People’s Park in Berkeley, California on May 15, 1969. PA

After construction halted, students and residents decided in the spring of 1969 to turn the muddy lot into a community green space, laying sod and installing play equipment.

When they refused to step down after the university tried to take over the property, the then-governor. Ronald Reagan sent tanks and National Guard troops to “clean up this mess.” The following conflict exploded into a bloody street fight that left one dead and another blinded, with dozens injured.

Steve Wasserman and his Berkeley high school classmates staged a sit-in to protest the violence at People’s Park, which he called “our Gettysburg.”

Wasserman, who is now the publisher of Heyday Books, acknowledged that the idea that “certain grounds are sacred, because blood has been shed there” sounds like nostalgia to young people who face more competition. tougher for a roof over their heads.

“People say, ‘Just get over it.’ Well, you don’t just forget history,” he said.

In the years since Bloody Thursday, as it was known, UC Berkeley undertook several ill-fated efforts to turn the park into a football pitch and parking lot. In 1991, the university installed beach volleyball courts which caused riots and vandalism. The school hired 24-hour guards to protect the courts before finally abandoning and dismantling them a few years later. Same efforts cutting down 42 trees in 2018 sparked suspicion and outrage.

With the number of homeless people on the rise in the Bay Area, the nonprofit group Food not bombs began serving free meals in the park in 1989, while the Suitcase Clinic provided medical care. But the park has also become a pole of attraction criminality. In the middle of critical that the university was turning a blind eye to the situation, UC Berkeley hired a full-time social worker in 2017 to oversee the park and surrounding blocks.

Ari Neulight now patrols the area five days a week, performing tasks ranging from handing out granola bars and socks to helping people fill out piles of paperwork needed to apply for government social services.

“It’s mostly about having someone to help get people to a place where they can trust that things could be different,” he said.

Whether UC Berkeley’s latest experiment at People’s Park can succeed remains an open question.

“There has to be some balance,” said Judy Gumbo, a longtime Berkeley resident who remembers helping build the park in 1969, side by side with hippies, teachers and members of the Black Panther Party. .

“Yes, students need accommodation,” she said. “But is it necessary to build a gigantic, ugly building in what used to be a beautiful ecological place?”

Yet she acknowledged that the old People’s Park was gone.

“People got scared, people got old – for whatever reason – they weren’t able to maintain those utopian values,” she said. “And that’s a shame.”