John Hinkel Park reopens historic Amphitheater and a new playground after years of restoration
Tony Corman’s Morchestra plays during the reopening of John Hinkel Park on Saturday, July 16. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight

An eight-year process to spruce up the rustic, wooded John Hinkel Park in North Berkeley culminated Saturday in the unveiling of a refurbished amphitheater, a new playground and a new picnic area that uses salvaged redwood from the park’s original 1918 clubhouse, which was gutted by fire in 2015

Jazz enthusiasts, older couples, energetic children and reluctant teens tagging along with their parents were among those in attendance at a jazz orchestra performance and ribbon-cutting event to commemorate the completion of the $1 million park restoration project. 

The restoration of the park’s historic amphitheater, built by the Civil Works Administration in 1934, included the removal of overgrown weeds and repairs to the masonry. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight

The new playground was custom-designed to preserve the park’s natural feel; the 1934 amphitheater’s eroding stonework was repointed; the outdoor stone fireplace’s crumbling chimney rebuilt; and the hillside oak grove, once overgrown, thinned by the city’s forestry department to reduce wildfire danger. Also added was a path that allows for wheelchair access in the amphitheater. 

John Hinkel Park, 41 Somerset Pl, Berkeley

The city originally planned to build the playground on a hillside in the southwest portion of the park, which would have included a patch of artificial turf that some neighbors lobbied against. Ultimately, the plan was scrapped — tree roots made construction difficult in the area and there were concerns about ADA access — and a wood chip playground was placed elsewhere in the park. The location was chosen, in part, to reduce the size of an asphalt lot near the amphitheater, which people sometimes used for performing car stunts, according to City Councilmember Sophie Hahn, whose district includes the park.

The new playground in John Hinkel Park was built on a former asphalt lot. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight

At the ribbon-cutting Saturday morning, Carol Maga, a neighbor who has been coming to the park for over 20 years, said she was just glad to have a playground again where she can take her kids. 

“This is definitely an escape from urban life,” she said. “You know, it’s inviting and nice to be in.”

Doug Lindsey, a Berkeley resident and an adult leader of Troop 19, said he was thinking about the Scouts’ long legacy at John Hinkel Park. “For 110 years, Scouts have met here,” he said. “The improvements are amazing: a new playground, a theater reinvigorated for Shakespeare, a place for all to enjoy.”

The Scout Hut in the park was built in 1939 for the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, moved to its current location in 1945 and is now falling apart. Lindsey is part of a group raising money to restore the hut. 

As a young girl, Councilmember Hahn saw her first play, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the park’s amphitheater and fell in love with theater. As a teen, she frequented the park mostly “because it was a good place to kind of hide,” she said with a laugh. “I won’t really say what we were doing here.” 

Councilmember Sophie Hahn in John Hinkel Park on Saturday. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight

“We’ve always loved this park,” Carolyn Tipton, a neighbor, poet and UC Berkeley professor, said. “I’m happy that the amphitheater has been restored to us, because it’s beautiful.” 

Tipton doesn’t mind the changes to the park — “all this expensive stuff,” as she described it — but she’s distressed about the current condition of the dry, weedy southwest lawn. The once-lush lawn is why Tipton and her husband, Frank, chose to get married in the park’s amphitheater in 1973. “When we dated, we hung out over there in the grass and read and talked.”

Frank Kucera and Carolyn Tipton. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight

That lawn still needs to be reseeded, according to Berkeley parks director Scott Ferris, and the city is installing a new irrigation system. Given the drought, the city can water it up to three days a week. The city will also plant around 50 new trees in the park. 

No dates for performances in the amphitheater have yet been announced.

Correction: The southwest lawn of John Hinkel Park has not yet been reseeded, as was mistakenly stated in a previous version of this story.

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...