Months away from UC Berkeley’s planned start to housing development on People’s Park, dozens of students, locals and park activists filled the space over the weekend to celebrate the park’s radical history and push for its continued protection.
The 53rd anniversary of the park, held on a sunny April weekend, was marked with a lineup of performances, local vendors and programming — like a Narcan training to prevent drug overdose deaths.
Read Berkeleyside archives on People’s Park
University students passed through the space on their way to Cal Day events Saturday. Others were drawn in by the buzz and activity once more familiar to the park, but less frequent after it became a homeless encampment for about 50 people and a temporary living space during the COVID-19 pandemic for many people who lived on the streets in other parts of Berkeley.
Cal’s embattled plans to build student housing on the park have gone through many iterations and delays over the last five decades, but pending multiple lawsuits, the institution appears poised to begin construction this summer after receiving final approval from the UC Regents in September 2021 to build a 12-story and six-story building on the site for over a thousand students.
Dan Mogulof, university spokesperson, said UC Berkeley is saving its arguments for court and doesn’t want to comment on the lawsuits. As for the development, the university has maintained that the park is not fit as a living space. (Occupants will receive temporary housing at the Rodeway Inn for at least 18 months before construction starts.)
The university’s outreach worker, Ari Neulight, has been working with park residents to navigate their housing options since his hiring in July 2017.
Though UC Berkeley’s development plans are nearing fruition, several groups gathered in solidarity asked for an immediate end to the plans, that the land be returned to indigenous stewardship, defunding UC police (which has jurisdiction over the area), permanent housing options for people living there and no criminal penalties for anyone who chooses to stay.
People’s Park advocates say a crucial service hub would be lost with the closure
Tyson Guerrero, 64, took a round at the park on Saturday afternoon, observing the festivities. He has lived in the park for about three months and is working on squaring away his applications for food stamps and disability. He said the park was a huge boon to him when he first arrived in the city.
Guerrero was born in Los Angeles and moved around before coming to the Bay Area, where circumstances led him to sleep on the street. Without a hub like People’s Park, where someone offered him a free tent, he said it’s difficult to find resources and connect to food programs, service providers and work opportunities to get back on his feet.
“When people can’t find help, help comes to them here,” Guerrero said of the park. “They’re taking that away from people.”
He’s worried many people at the park will not find housing by the time development begins and will just be pushed to homelessness in a different part of Berkeley’s streets — a sentiment echoed by many people at the park during the weekend’s festivities.
Roosevelt “Rosie” Stephens, an art teacher and longtime park frequenter, said the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have not yet come to fruition. However, he said the city can expect another wave of homelessness if eviction protections are lifted — what many have referred to as the “eviction cliff.” If this happens, Stephens said people will no longer have the park to turn to for refuge.
Advocate for the park, UC Berkeley alumnus and former mayoral candidate, Aiden Hill, emphasized that the park is in a “critical juncture,” especially concerning climate change and the loss of green spaces. Walking through the People’s Park garden, they gestured to the produce and greenery growing in the area and explained that residents — not institutions — have always been stewards of the park and made it a beautiful space.
“I think this weekend will show that regardless of who we are, we value green space, we value a sense of community and creativity, the freedom of assembly, speech and choice,” Hill said. “That’s what the People’s Park community has in common.”
People’s Park is a historic location for revolutionary action and gathering
In relatively recent history, the 3-acre patch of People’s Park has become a central object of criticism around the city and Cal’s role in the region-wide housing and homelessness crisis.
Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a bill to allow Cal to admit 19,500 students in the coming year, following a lawsuit that accused UC Berkeley of putting stress on the surrounding city as its student population grows without sufficient housing options.
Osha Neumann, attorney and longtime People’s Park advocate, said amid this crisis — the university is pitting the need for student housing against the need for homeless housing as residents throughout the region struggle with gentrification and exorbitant living costs.
“The city is big enough and rich enough, and the university is big enough and rich enough that there should have been a way to meet both of those needs,” Neumann said. “I don’t believe that would have been impossible, but I believe there was an agenda to use the crisis of a lack of student housing as a justification for building in the park.”
With the right intentions, Neumann said the park could have become a place where its radical history is honored — and that history is lived out in the present to serve the needs of people who have the least.
People’s Park was founded in 1969, when a group of activists decided to build a recreation space on an empty lot owned by UC Berkeley and left vacant for a year with plans to build a parking lot. It existed for 24 days, according to Tom Dalzell’s book, The Battle for People’s Park.
When UC Berkeley tried to take the park back on March 15, 1969, protesters were confronted by Alameda County sheriff’s deputies, who shot and wounded protesters, including killing James Rector, a bystander. This came to be known as “Bloody Thursday,” one of the most violent days in the park’s history.
Ensuing days and months of protest, now commemorated in a mural on Haste Street at Telegraph Avenue, built the park into the hub it is today and protests continue with fervor over defending the park.
Some students and locals fiercely pushed back against Cal’s first steps to development in January 2021, when the university erected fences around the park to test the soil, tearing down the fences at the encouragement of People’s Park’s now 84-year-old co-founder, Michael Delacour.
UC Berkeley is moving forward with its plans despite the pushback and has promised to honor the varied and turbulent history of the park with 1.7 acres of open space that will be reserved for greenery and recreation in the planned housing development. The new project plans will also include supportive housing units for formerly homeless park occupants.
But Neumann said the university’s efforts will not make up for the loss of history in the park or replace what — for several factors — has become one of the city’s last remaining refuges for homeless people.
“If the park goes, it means that that space that was opened up by the protest in the 60s — the space that was created by the people in opposition to power … the place where ‘we the people’ determined the fate of a piece of land to meet the needs of the people — that’s gone,” Neumann said.