Photograph by Sophia Rodriguez-Bell
On Sunday, September 23, about 100 people participated in a gathering at People’s Park to protest University of California (UC) Berkeley’s plan to build new student dormitories there. Organized by some of the original founders of the park, the protest featured local speakers and music by Skank Bank, Maya Songbird, Stevie B, and The Missionaries. The atmosphere was relaxed, and Food not Bombs provided free food for everyone in attendance.
Located near the corner of Dwight and Telegraph, People’s Park has a long and storied history dating back to the late 1960s, as a rallying place for the Free Speech Movement. While the land is owned by the University of California, the park has operated as a public park since the 1970s. Now, UC Berkeley plans to build new student housing that would take up half of the property, with space for supportive housing for the homeless, a public green space as well as a memorial honoring the park’s legacy. The student dormitories will create up to 1,000 new beds in yet to-be-determined room configurations and the supportive housing would include between 75 and 125 apartments. Despite its urban setting, the university currently has the lowest percentage of beds for the size of its student body in the UC system and is urgently looking to expand its student housing. Construction is expected to begin in 2020.
At Sunday’s protest, Michael Delacour, one of the original founders of the park, expressed his displeasure with the university’s plan to build housing. “People will lose the space they have to hang out,” he said. He is convinced that the park is an important resource and he has helped improve its infrastructure over the years. Delacour organized the public bathrooms in the park, since beforehand “the porta potties would overflow and people would kick them over,” he said. He believes the park “brings down the barriers in our society so the working class can rule.” Delacour is opposed to UC Berkeley’s plan to divide the space. “They just want to divide us,” he said, “once you start negotiating, it’s over.” Others at the protests agreed but were supportive of UC’s plans to provide permanent housing for the city’s homeless population. Even Michael Delacour’s daughter, Vanessa Delacour, would support dual use, “it’s a win win for me,” she said, if the university sets aside land to house the homeless.
For Delacour, it is all deja vu. He recalled how the park was first acquired by the university in 1967 for student dorms. When construction began in 1968, it was quickly suspended since the university ran out of money. Local shop owners and merchants in the area met to discuss the possible uses for the then unused site. They agreed to create another area for demonstrations, similar to Sproul Plaza, but with less university influence due to its location. Their idea quickly gained traction, and eventually over 1,000 people came to contribute money and materials for the creation of the park.
In the years that followed, there were several clashes between the people in the park and the university. The most famous, “Bloody Thursday,” on May 15, 1969, resulted in violent clashes that injured over 128 people. The park became a national symbol for free speech and freedom of expression. Subsequent efforts by the university to reclaim the space failed due to large scale public opposition.
Now, years later, public attention seems to have diminished. Only a handful of UC Berkeley students attended the protest, including a student group that facilitates an artist-in-residence program for the homeless. Krupa Modi, a UC Berkeley student, said “I understand why people want to build new dorms here, but I think the open space is really important to maintain for low income housing. It is a refuge for many.” Monica Shreiber, another UC Berkeley student, echoed Modi’s thoughts, saying “the park is a really good physical space, both symbolic and practical.”
Joe Liesner, with Food not Bombs, a food organization that provides free food to the homeless in the park on a regular basis, wondered why the university had to build new dorms in this spot. “When you mention Berkeley all over the world they ask you about People’s Park.” He said, “Why do dorms have to be built here? Why not elsewhere?”