If you know Berkeley, you know People’s Park. For many, the park represents a place of growth, protest, and childhood memories. For Grady, who has been living in People’s Park for just under five months and did not give the Jacket his full name, it’s “a positive place … where people want to be social and engage with each other. A place to vent and release all of the day’s stressors. It’s the core of the community.”
Recently, the University of California (UC), Berkeley, at the city’s proposal to convert the park into housing for homeless students and veterans, has raised controversy from a variety of voices. Back in 1956, the park was just a piece of land bought by UC regents in order to build student housing and parking lots. However, a lack of funds delayed the projects until 1969, when locals and contractors met to discuss the potential uses of the land.
By that point, the park had already become a popular place for social gatherings, romantic rendez-vous, and activism. Stew Albert, an anti-Vietnam War activist, decided to write an article, calling for the support of local residents. Once the article was published, people began to come together, first in dozens, then in hundreds, until finally, there were no less than a thousand people helping build and design the park. Trees and flowers were planted, and a community was formed.
The park has lived through protests, shootings, and the turn of the millennium. It quickly became a hub for the free speech movement and communities of all ages. As Bekka Fink, an activist and former Berkeley High School (BHS) student said, “I grew up in this park, as an activist in the free speech movement and in the women’s movement.”
However, just like in 1969, the UC is still intent on building student housing on the land. Back in the late ’60s, UC Berkeley Chancellor Roger Heyns decided to proceed with the construction and build a fence around the park. By order of Governor Ronald Reagan, a fence was installed around the perimeter of the park to prevent people from entering.
Fences have been torn down by protesters and built back up again throughout the years — perhaps most notably in 2020, when a group of UC Berkeley student protesters spent the night in the park. Yet, despite public backlash, construction plans moved forward — until the first shelter-in-place order in early 2020 put the construction to a temporary stop, as Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín referred to it. According to Arreguín, construction could resume after the lockdown order had been lifted, to continue with “full transparency.”
Many were relieved by the pause, but this is part of the familiar back-and-forth that has occurred for decades. Recently, workers came to retrieve soil samples, a sign that construction is moving forward. However, protestors also tore down fences in late January, proving that any progress in construction will face opposition.
The public backlash comes from many different groups. Andrew Verdi, a Bay Area resident for over three generations, said of the construction plan, “It’s an absolute travesty to the community. As humans, we are stewards of this earth, here to protect nature.” Verdi is a strong advocate for the environment and the local community, and he frequents People’s Park. “We have one earth,” he said, “We must give back to the earth. And you have to keep these local community focal points, such as parks, nature reserves — open spaces — for people and community.”
For local activist and UC Berkeley student Alicia, who gave the Jacket only her first name, People’s Park was never an experience of her childhood. However, when she started attending UC Berkeley, she began to fully understand the significance of the park. Now, she said, “There’s a drive to protect the park from what the university is planning, because this park is People’s Park.”
Alicia felt strongly that the land should be returned to the Indigenous people of Berkeley. “There can’t be a People’s Park until it’s genuinely owned by the people who have historical and cultural claim to it,” she said.
According to her, however, an overwhelming amount of students are looking forward to this new development, as it provides them with more housing space. “I think a lot of students look at the lack of student housing and they think, ‘Why would you ever block the creation of more student living space?’ On a gut level,” she said, “I think it’s a very good reaction — we see a lot of homeless students, so we want to build more housing.”
About 27 percent of UC Berkeley undergraduate students live in college affiliated housing, with another 73 percent living off campus. A deeper look into these statistics shows that 10 to 20 percent of all students, from undergrad to post doctorate, have experienced homelessness to some degree. These statistics, however drastic, are not particularly shocking, especially knowing the rising housing prices and low income that students are subjected to.
However, Alicia believes that the new housing development will not be as accessible to the student body as the UC regents make it seem, rather, it would be nowhere near affordable. A potential solution would be to use other available sites to build cheaper student housing. Alicia suggested the Chancellor’s mansion. “It has similar acreage to this park and could easily be built upon without displacing residents or ridding the public of one of the only open green spaces on the South Side.”
It’s certain that UC Berkeley will face more backlash on its housing plan. In these sorts of situations, communication and democracy are key to ensuring the well-being of citizens and transparency towards residents. It remains to be seen whether the community will rise up once again, or if the UC will continue to actuate their plan.