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A Park for the People

A conflict over the future of a historic Berkeley park reopens an old battle between radical city activists and expansion-minded university officials

Jonah Raskin
October 19, 2021
Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Image
Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Image

For more than a half-century, People’s Park in Berkeley has been an emotionally charged landscape, a political flashpoint, and a historical tipping point. Hundreds of news stories, essays, and op-eds have been written about the 2.8-acre parcel, aka lot 1875-2, on the city’s densely populated South Side. The complex history of lot 1875-2 was most notably detailed in Tom Dalzell’s 350-page, profusely illustrated tome, The Battle for People’s ParkBerkeley 1969, which was published on the 50th anniversary of the bloody confrontation between “street people” and the police. In the book’s foreword, author Todd Gitlin calls the park an “improvised utopia” and an “anarchist heaven on earth.”

In May 1969, the “Blue Meanies,” named after the villains in the Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine, attacked the denizens of the park. A helicopter called a “whirly pig” sprayed tear gas. One man, James Rector, died. Another man was blinded. Dozens were arrested and dozens more were wounded. Steve Wasserman, who graduated from Berkeley in ’74 after helping to build the utopia, and who is now the publisher and executive director at Heyday Books, tells me that “the battle we fought in ‘69 was about two antithetical visions of America; ours and theirs. It’s not over yet.”

For years after the showdown, nothing significant happened in the park, except that it slowly fell into disrepair. Then, on the last day of September 2021, the Regents of the University of California, the institution that owns the dry, dusty, derelict property, approved a $312 million budget to build two skyscrapers. One promises to be 12 stories high, another will be six stories with 1,111 beds for student housing.

The UC Regents have also promised to provide housing for the homeless, some of whom have long occupied a corner of People’s Park. Elsewhere in the city, hundreds of homeless people also live in tents, just as hundreds more live on the streets of Oakland, which borders Berkeley. The same story holds true in San Francisco on the other side of the Bay.

Trinity College professor Davarian L. Baldwin, a Black scholar who works with urban communities in Philadelphia and has written extensively about Black urban life—has chronicled the familiar clash between academic powerhouses and surrounding neighborhoods in his new book, In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Cities. While the plundering is not brand new, it has accelerated in the 21st century, “especially in big cities where it’s a growing trend,” Baldwin told me. He added, “I’ve seen bits and pieces of the story in various parts of the country, but few cases are more egregious than what’s happening in Berkeley in the shadow of the university.”

Fifty-three years ago, in the spring of 1968, a student insurrection took place at Columbia University. The widespread protests were sparked in nearly equal measure by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the university’s encroachment into Morningside Park, where the administration wanted to build a gym for undergrads. “The 1968 protests at Columbia are the most iconic sign of resistance to plundering,” Baldwin told me.

Fast forward to 2021, and Columbia is still on the move, having pushed into nearby Harlem in order to tear down and build between 125th Street, a vital east/west artery, and 145th Street, which is two miles from the heart of the old campus at Broadway and 116th. Columbia is also expanding to the west. It recently acquired a lot not far from the banks of the Hudson River.

In Harlem with help from local politicians, community members are pushing back, though New York’s top court ruled that Columbia has the right to use eminent domain to take 17 acres from property owners. “The indisputably public purpose of education is particularly vital for New York City and the State to maintain their respective statuses as global centers of higher education and academic research,” the court said.

Baldwin told me that “universities use their public status and image of doing good to usurp communities.” Indeed, Columbia plans to erect a controversial 34-story high-rise with room for 142 student apartments, a lounge, and a gym (hence the cry “No Gym Crow”) on the site of a McDonald’s, once a popular destination for Harlem residents. The 34-story high-rise will be part of the new Columbia campus, known as “Manhattanville,” which will cost an estimated $6.3 billion. First proposed in 2003, the expanded campus would add 6 million square feet of space to the university, provide seasonal employment for thousands of construction workers and permanent employment, so Columbia says, for thousands more. The project was supposed to begin in 2020 and end in 2022 but the pandemic scrapped those plans.

Harlem residents have pointed out that despite Columbia’s idyllic-sounding name, “Manhattanville,” the project will uproot them from their homes, increase rents for apartments, undermine tenants’ rights, and fundamentally alter the character of the neighborhood. Assemblyman Dan O’Donnell, who represents the area adjacent to Columbia, said, “I will fight to the death to stop you.” Local activist Miriam Aristy-Farer, the daughter of Dominican immigrants, complains that Columbia has turned a blind eye to community demands for a new public school at the site of the old McDonald’s where employees once said, “We do it all for you.”

UC Berkeley houses only 23% of its undergraduate student body. An estimated 10% of the student population of 31,000 sleep in cars, on the streets, in tents, or crash in the apartments of friends, family members, or other Golden Bears, as the students and athletic teams are known. According to the office of Michael Drake, the president of the University of California, the failure to provide an adequate number of beds “adversely affects the overall student experience.” California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, a member of the Regents and a Berkeley graduate, voted for the two new buildings, she said, precisely because thousands of students are forced to live far from the campus. “This is the most critical problem Berkeley is facing,” she said.

Money doesn’t seem to be a problem for the university, though near-constant fundraising is the order of the day. In the summer of 2021, the University of California announced that its “assets grew to $168 billion, a 29 percent jump over the prior fiscal year and the largest one-year gain in its history.” The superrich throw money at Cal (as students affectionately call the Berkeley campus), which is the oldest of the public institutions of higher learning that make up the University of California system. Cal, which opened in 1869, is the flagship of the 10-campus network.

On the day the Regents voted for the $312 million budget to build residence halls, Berkeleyside, the free online publication, ably edited by Frances Dinkelspiel—that covers nearly everything that happens in the city and on the campus—ran a headline that read, “The end of the 1960s?” Indeed, the spirit of the ’60s—which was born in part during the ’64 Free Speech Movement and that flowered in ’69 when hippies, freaks, and radicals turned lot 1875-2 into People’s Park—has never really ended in “Berzerkeley,” as it has been characterized, perhaps unfairly. Almost every year since ’69, some event—be it a concert, a rally, a riot, the planting of a community vegetable garden— has taken place on the site. The battle has never ended.

A 1976 mural painted on an outside wall of Amoeba Music on Haste Street commemorates both the Free Speech Movement and People’s Park. In the mural, creators Osha Neumann and Brian Thiele depict famed orator Mario Savio standing atop a police car. Street people dig in the earth with shovels and plant trees. In the upper-right-hand corner, several National Guardsmen hold rifles, while the body of James Rector lies on the roof of a building, his life slipping away.

That mural is grounded in reality. In the spring of ‘69, thousands of Guardsmen were dispatched to Berkeley to “clean up the mess,” as then-governor Ronald Reagan called it. A fence was erected around the park, troops sealed off downtown Berkeley, and the cops arrested 482 people. Reagan rode the mopping-up operation against the “dirty hippies” all the way to the White House. The right and left both claim the park as a symbol, a myth, and as a flashpoint in the ongoing culture wars that have defined the nation for decades. In 2012, in the wake of the Occupy movement which disrupted Oakland for months, Neumann allowed that confrontations between radicals and systems echo “the conflict between child and adult,” but he added that it was still legitimate to “rage against the system.”

Neumann ought to know. A member of the New York City collective Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, he’s also the son of Franz Neumann and the stepson of Herbert Marcuse, the intellectual father of the New Left who inspired the likes of Angela Davis and Abbie Hoffman. Marcuse argued that the powers-that-be repress by tolerating dissent and rebellion, not just smashing heads.

Over the past half-century, the Regents have played a waiting game, hoping that Osha Neumann and his generation will give up, go away, and stop protesting. Steve Wasserman tells me, “My own father says ‘Get over it.’” He swears he won’t. Judy Gumbo, a Berkeley resident who was at People’s Park in ’69, says she’s old and can’t run from the police anymore. She presents herself as a moderate who argues for compromise, telling me that she’d like each and every member of the Regents to cough up $100,000 of their own money and invest in People’s Park. What was it that anarchists shouted in Paris in ’68? “Be realistic. Demand the impossible.”

Other citizens who want to revive the dream of a park for the people might be accurately described as conservationists and environmentalists. Not only do opponents of the construction project want to preserve an accurate record of the historical past, but they also want to preserve the landmark buildings (the First Church of Christ, Scientists, and the Baptist Divinity School) along the outer edge of lot 1875—two of which were designed by Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan. Some of the structures have already been listed as National Historic and City of Berkeley Landmarks.

“It would be nice if the whole area were declared a historic district,” architectural historian Daniella Thompson tells me. The former president of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA), Thompson still manages the organization’s website, which offers color photos of the innovative, aesthetically appealing buildings designed by Morgan, Maybeck, and others. “I have given up on the Regents,” Thompson says. “They want to build monstrosities that are out-of-character and out-of-scale for the city. In some cases, the university now wants to destroy buildings it once wanted to preserve. But the Berkeley faculty does a lot of good. Not so the administration.”

Bloody, battle-scarred People’s Park can’t fade fast enough from the pages of history for the university, as well as for UC Berkeley’s chancellor, Carol Christ, who in a recent email to alumni, called the housing project “a renewed People’s Park.” Until the mid-1960s, lot 1875-2 boasted comfortable houses on small parcels that provided homes for Cal professors and longtime Berkeley residents. Armed with eminent domain, which allowed them to seize the land legally, the Regents called in a small army of bulldozers and the walls came tumbling down. The stage was set for the curtain to rise on the drama of People’s Park, which was meant to express the vision of both the radical left and counterculture, along with the ecological goals of the rapidly emerging environmental movement. The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970, less than a year after the battle of People’s Park.

At an all-day teach-in titled “The Politics of Ecology,” held on the Cal campus May 28, 1969, famed urban historian Jane Jacobs told the crowd, “I love you. Be brave, but do be careful. Against armor and against sadism your weapon must be ingenuity.” In blunt, forceful language, with Vietnam casualties, and the demise of cities on her mind, Jacobs praised the people who aimed to create what she called “an honest park.”

To the bruised, unbowed veterans of lot 1875-2, she spoke from her own heart: “You sliced away at the liberal pretensions of fascist planning.” Then she pulled back and offered a slice of the big historical picture which she knew all too well: “For the past quarter-century, the universities, cities, and other institutions of the Establishment have cynically but successfully used parks as their excuse for land grabs and for ruthlessly uprooting helpless people. In the name of the parks, lazy liberals were easily conned into complicity with these crimes. In the name of parks, bulldozers were used like tanks with impunity against the civilian population. Now the fraud is laid bare. The Establishment kills its youth.”

These days, the supporters of the park as an open space who are also the foes of the proposed tall buildings—aka the “big penises”—rarely use words and phrases like “the establishment” and “liberal pretensions of fascist planning.” But they describe Cal as an octopus that reaches out, squeezes the city of Berkeley, and strangles its inhabitants.

The preservationists borrow the image of the octopus from George Frederick Keller’s 1882 lithograph titled “The Curse of California.” Keller depicted the railroads as a robber baron monopoly, with its tentacles wrapped around the Golden State’s agriculture, lumber, shipping, stagecoach lines, mines, and wine industry.

On a recent tour of Berkeley with the activist Harvey Smith, I saw the curse in operation. “You won’t recognize the place,” Smith told me on the phone the night before I drove from San Francisco, where I live, to Berkeley, where I had not visited for several years. Indeed, Smith himself, who belongs to People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group and who is the author of Berkeley and the New Deal, barely recognizes the face of the city. He has lived in the same place for most of the past 55 years, beginning in 1966, when he came to Berkeley from Southern California in part because of the legend of the Free Speech Movement. The house he lives in and co-owns was built around 1903, when Berkeley was more of a hamlet than a city.

Nearly everywhere I traveled with Smith, I saw old buildings coming down, or else buildings that were condemned and were waiting to be demolished. Men wearing hard hats were nearly everywhere, and new buildings were going up or had recently gone up. The old historic downtown is now largely a thing of the past. A new shiny city of glass and steel has largely taken its place, and, while it might feel like progress to some, it doesn’t feel that way to Smith, who seemingly remembers every tree cut down to make room for market-rate housing which most students can’t afford. In the 1960s when he was a student, Smith protested against the proposed demolition of South Hall, the oldest building on campus. “That would be a bad idea,” he told a vice chancellor, whose name he doesn’t remember, though he does remember that he paid $99 a year to attend Cal.

The same Berkeley pattern of demolition and construction—albeit without the brown shingles, or the elegant old buildings designed by Morgan and Maybeck—has been repeated from New York and Chicago to San Francisco and Los Angeles, where longtime ’60s activist Eric Mann lambasts the expansionist University of Southern California (USC), and the nationwide phenomenon that he calls “university imperialism.”

Like USC and Columbia, Cal is proud of the knowledge it generates and the recognition it receives: 110 Nobel laureates, 103 MacArthur “genius” awards, 30 Pulitzer Prize winners, 11 governors, and 25 living billionaires. One might argue that in order to continue being a first-rate powerhouse of ideas and innovations, Berkeley needs a new crop of undergrads every semester—and the new crop needs new housing.

The People’s Park partisans don’t disagree—they just argue that lot 1875-2 isn’t the place for student housing and that right now is not the right time either, given the fact that the university has never apologized for calling in the cops and the soldiers and going along with then-Gov. Reagan.

On the bright morning when I finally arrived at People’s Park, I felt underwhelmed. Yes, a sign said, “Welcome to Ohlone land.” (The Ohlone were the original inhabitants.) True, the old trees—an incense cedar, a Canary Island palm, and a redwood— lend a certain dignity to the space, but in the midst of the drought they looked rather dusty and forlorn, as did the entire lot. That’s not the fault of the homeless who camp here, though many Berkeley residents blame them for the run-down state of affairs and for the crimes that have taken place in that lot: three homicides, 15 robberies, nine rapes, 57 thefts and 20 fires since 2013, according to Cal spokesman Dan Mogulof.

If anyone might be blamed for the sad state of affairs there, it should be the university, as it owns the property. Nonetheless, it’s not a People’s Park exclusive problem—Berkeleyside conducted a thorough investigation of crime and violence in the city which shows it’s all over the map, in North, West, and South Berkeley, certainly not clustered in that area. And for years, the university downplayed crime happening right on campus that involved alcohol, drugs. and weapons. In 2020, the U. S. Department of Education fined Cal for failing to keep accurate records of violations of the law, though the department also stated that the university made “significant improvements.”

Peter Moore, a friend who moved years ago from New York to Berkeley to become a radical tells me, “I felt good distributing food to the homeless, but allowing a substantial proportion of the population of the park to self-medicate with heroin, fentanyl, and meth is not good for them or the community.” He adds, “I believe that the majority of people in Berkeley would trade the current situation for some dorms and a reduced open space.”

To that point, Harvey Smith shakes his head and says, “Yes, drug use is bad, but it has been tolerated by the police. Find homes for the homeless and police the park, which hasn’t been done effectively for years. Don’t try to save the village by destroying it.”

A man in the park who introduced himself as Daniel lives in a large tent and sells CDs at basement prices. “There’s no place in the world like People’s Park,” he told me. “It has no fences, no gates, and no iron bars. I’ve been coming and going freely for years. I wish every park was like this one.”

A group called Food Not Bombs helps feed the homeless people in the park. One member, Joe Lieser, tells me they play chess and make art with the homeless residents. “People are awfully judgmental these days about drugs and alcohol,” he says. Lieser says he hopes that there won’t be any more confrontation there. He’d like the park to be a place with trees and a lawn where kids can play, musicians perform, poets recite, and families share meals.

“I think we can do it,” he tells me. “The university has great minds and Berkeley is a great place to live. If we can’t create a park that’s safe and open to everyone, we will have failed a basic challenge of coexistence.”

Katie Latimer, a Berkeley physics grad student, lived in the dorms when she was in her first year at Cal. She was eager to get out, though she says that some freshmen have positive experiences in the dorms. She’s not opposed to “high density living situations,” but points out that Cal’s dorms aren’t ideal. “I think the university cares more about making money from the dorms than about the student experience on campus,” she says.

She’s against the construction of high-rises in People’s Park because of the neighborhood’s historical significance, because the buildings would have a ripple effect and would contribute to “the gentrification” of the neighborhood. She has looked at the data and has concluded that People’s Park is no more crime-ridden than any other comparable area in Berkeley. “I know the Regents just approved the plan, but it’s not the final word,” she says. “In the past, decisions have been reversed. It won’t be easy for us. If and when it does happen, it will happen the way it has happened in the past, because of the will of large numbers of people in the park and in the streets.”

If there is to be another confrontation, there will have to be another Mario Savio, who ignited the Free Speech Movement, or a second Dan Siegel, a law student who yelled to his followers at a rally on campus, “Take the Park,” with his words kicking off a riot in the streets. Perhaps the provocative spokesperson will be a member of the class of 2023. And someone will have to make a new poster as powerful as the original poster that Frank Bardacke, the People’s Park co-founder, made in ’69, which depicts Geronimo with a rifle and the words “Who Owns the Park?” The question has at least two answers these days, maybe more.

Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of 14 books, including biographies of Jack London, Allen Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman. His new book of poetry is The Thief of Yellow Roses (Regent Press).

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