Telegraph Avenue is set to get its first 24-hour public toilet next year, but one of two potential locations could obscure a landmarked mural depicting the history of Berkeley’s People’s Park and Free Speech Movement.
Now Osha Neumann, a civil rights lawyer who helped create the 45-year-old mural and who has advocated for homeless residents in People’s Park, has started a campaign to stop the toilet from blocking the artwork.
The city public works project has been under consideration for nearly three years, and is nearing its final stages with a staff recommendation to the City Council posted on November 1, and contract review and Council discussion in January 2022.
The proposed locations are on Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street (where the “people’s history” mural is) and another one block up at the intersection of Channing Way. Telegraph Avenue was identified as a high-need spot for a public restroom in the city’s 2019 bathroom study, along with locations like San Pablo Avenue and Willard Park.
Councilmember Rigel Robinson, who refers to the project as “my toilet,” said the city urgently needs to expand public restroom access for its residents. Telegraph Avenue does not have a 24-hour public toilet (only one that closes in the evening in the Telegraph-Channing parking garage) and the toilet at People’s Park is set to be demolished once the new structure opens, according to Robinson.
“We also need to hold close our history and the heart of this city. I hope we can do both,” Robinson said, but declined to specify his preference while city staff finalize their recommendation on the toilet’s location.
There are wall murals at both potential locations, but the People’s History Mural is particularly valuable to Berkeley historians and activists who have fought for People’s Park and the civil rights issues depicted in the painting over the last five decades. This includes social and political movements in the 1960s, the fight that led to the creation of People’s Park (which is now set to be built over with student housing) and “Bloody Thursday,” a pivotal 1969 battle for the park between activists and law enforcement.
Neumann, 82, designed and painted the mural project with several artists in 1976. He wrote to the city earlier this month urging it to reconsider the toilet’s placement. He also wrote an op-ed in the Berkeley Daily Planet arguing for the mural’s merits, and his position has garnered support from the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, People’s Park community members and other civil rights activists.
“The City can’t find any place to install a toilet except smack dab in front of my mural – our mural? And somehow that’s OK?” Neumann wrote. “To permanently obscure the view of a mural, which has been a Berkeley landmark since it was painted in 1976, and which was officially landmarked in 1990; a mural which is still the only memorial in the city (and perhaps anywhere) to the events that gave Berkeley its reputation as a place where people struggle for the betterment of human kind, for the end of stupid brutal wars, for the elimination of racism, for freedom of speech, and for life free from repressive strictures on how to dress, whom to love, and how to wear your hair. All those freedoms this mural celebrates.”
“The need to poop and pee, should not be in conflict with the need for free speech, the need to remember the past, and the need for art that embodies our collective memory,” he added.
Liam Garland, head of public works, said the city engaged public comment multiple times before narrowing down the options to the Haste and Channing locations. Neumann questioned how robust the public process was and said he only learned of the project this month.
“Public Works seeks to balance the needs for a public restroom in the Telegraph area with the needs and desires of adjacent property owners and various stakeholders. If these were easy decisions, we wouldn’t need public processes to make them,” Garland said. “In this case, the process has helped flesh out the pro’s and con’s of these two locations and will lead to a better recommendation on the ultimate location.”
Alex Knox, CEO of the Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District, said the criteria for the toilet’s placement was complex, and involved considerations like aesthetics of the street, the location of underground utilities and infrastructure, visibility and approachability, sidewalk space and more.
He said location is extremely important when it comes to the success of a public utility like a toilet, especially one that will serve a large range of people in the business district. This includes homeless residents, students, visitors and anyone else who doesn’t have access to bathrooms inside the avenue’s businesses.
“I feel like we’ve really looked honestly at the options,” Knox said, adding that the two proposed locations are in the “sweet spot” when it comes to access and comfort.
Stuart Baker, Knox’s predecessor at the business district, also advocated for the toilet. The business district is putting up $10,000 for the project, and the remainder of the funding (roughly $90,000) will come from Measure T and city funds.