Nicholas Alexander was up and cooking by 5 a.m. Wednesday, preparing juicy tri-tip, stuffed cheesy peppers and pork roast in the center of People’s Park at a new kitchen and pantry that debuted this spring through community efforts.
Though organizations like Food Not Bombs, Dorothy Day House and local churches have been serving meals at People’s Park for decades, the roughly 15-square-foot cooking and food storage space is the first of its kind at the park, which has become home to over a dozen people sleeping overnight in tents during the pandemic.
Alexander created a kitchen for Occupy Berkeley in 2011 and also lived at the “Here There” encampment on Adeline Street (at Alcatraz Avenue) last year, where there’s a shared kitchen and pantry system for residents. The People’s Park Kitchen is much larger and currently has three grills, a small oven and four camping stovetops; a solar-powered, top-opening fridge is expected to arrive in the next couple of weeks.
The kitchen has provided almost 5,000 meals since it first opened at the end of March, Alexander said, and was made possible through community donations.
“We were enabled, ultimately, by the fact that (the university) allowed tents here,” he said, referring to Cal’s decision not to enforce tent sweeps during the pandemic, in line with Berkeley and Alameda County’s shelter-in-place order.
While the university has quicky removed previous “food box” projects from the site, Alexander said the pandemic gave him and others the opportunity to erect a structure that could actually support people and help them with daily food needs.
Beginning in March, the kitchen was built “chaotically,” Alexander said, meaning the structure is difficult to destroy and has “anti-police” architecture. Pulling out a few screws can’t level the whole thing, which currently consists of a food counter with fruit, snacks and a coffee station, a dry good storage area and an open-air food preparation station toward the back.
The Berkeley Free Clinic and People’s Park Committee’s Elizabeth Gill have arranged a water tank for hand-washing and drinking that’s located closer to the kitchen than the existing bathroom facilities. Alexander said the city maintains the tank on a regular basis to ensure its cleanliness.
The kitchen is neat, cared for and well-stocked, but it’s still located in a highly-trafficked, outdoor space without proper permitting or hygiene inspections. There are rats in and around the kitchen space, and aside from airtight storage and regular spot cleaning, the organizers don’t have a way to cover all their bases when it comes to safety.
The university has regularly raised the alarm over adverse living conditions at the park, and contacted the People’s Park Kitchen organizers multiple times in the last few months to ask that the space be shut down.
“The University is deeply concerned that food is being prepared and served in the park without the Health Department permits and oversight required by the law. This is but one of the unlawful activities that are posing a threat to the health and safety of the people in the park, as well as surrounding neighbors,” Cal spokesperson Dan Mogulof said in a statement.
The university currently has no immediate plans to enforce a removal, however, Mogulof said.
In Alexander’s experience, the service the kitchen provides outweighs the risks of preparing food out in the open. He used to cook at the “Here There” kitchen and said the area had a much larger vermin problem due to its proximity to BART, but its food — like that at People’s Park Kitchen — never once had poisoning or contamination issues.
It’s yet another sticking point between People’s Park residents who are pushing for a community that can both survive and flourish, and university and local officials, who believe the residents shouldn’t have to fight for survival in a space that’s altogether unfit for living.
“The park’s infrastructure was never meant to provide what a large, permanent population of people would need,” Mogulof said, adding that Ari Neulight, the university’s full-time People’s Park social worker, has arranged housing alternatives for 60 people over the last two years. “We believe that we as a community, Berkeley writ large, we can do better than simply having unhoused people sleeping in a park that was never built or meant to accommodate a permanent population.”
The university and city officials are taking multiple steps to transition people into temporary and permanent housing, including the city’s changes to its shelter system during the pandemic and the opening of a new, 24-hour shelter this summer on Grayson Street in West Berkeley. Officials also arranged for mobile clinics to bring COVID-19 vaccines to the park in the early days of the rollout, when shots were difficult to come by.
But residents at the park, many of whom prefer to stay there, say there is an immediate and urgent need filled by community initiatives like the People’s Park Kitchen that the city, county and state officials are not putting forth.
“The fact that Nick and the (Cal) student body is picking up that slack, and then for the institution to get really finicky and trying to nitpick on, ‘Well this isn’t legal, that’s not legal,’ — how legal is it that you’ve got somebody that sleeps on the cold concrete, starving to death while there’s a building that’s heated 80 degrees for business (right there)?,” said Kenneth Metz, who has lived at the park for about three years and has been a People’s Park visitor since he was a child.
Alexander said he will continue to cook for People’s Park residents as long as the kitchen stands, and that his dishes have become popular enough for some folks to drive in for the occasion when he’s cooking a big meal. His priority is residents who live at the park, however, and his personal system is to make sure that women eat first.
“I honestly think if they tear (the People’s Park Kitchen) down, then we’re going to have a lot more to say at the Regents meeting when they decide whether or not they want to build on this park,” Alexander said, referring to the next UC Regents meeting in July to discuss a development at the park, including a high-rise apartment complex slated for 2024. “If they tear down a community kitchen that’s servicing an area that’s rife with food insecurity, that makes no moral, ethical or logical sense.”
“This (kitchen) should have been a part of the narrative a long time ago. People don’t have basic needs here,” he added. “That’s what really is kind of shocking, after building this kitchen. Seeing the desperate need for it.”
Correction: Cal’s social worker Ari Neulight assisted 60 households in finding homes over the last two or more years, not during the pandemic year alone.