A failure to communicate ideals on open spaces between the Berkeley community, UC Berkeley and the Berkeley City Council plagues the future of People’s Park.
A recent commentary by Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson mischaracterized the creation of the park and its current supporters. The park has ongoing support from a diverse group of well-respected community members who are not extremists or young idealists. Instead, they are former Berkeley mayors, former Berkeley City Councilmembers, former Berkeley commissioners, UC Berkeley professors, students, professionals, and others who have formally organized for the park’s advocacy and protection. Support for the park extends to the state level as it has been declared unanimously by the State Historical Resources Commission as a registered historical site.
People’s Park has been neglected as an open space by its owner, UC Berkeley, since the University called former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who ordered police and the National Guard to occupy the park in 1969. This conflict led to one of the most violent confrontations between a university and its local community.
The hostility toward the Berkeley community was not just about a park. Gov. Reagan, a rising star in U.S. politics, ran his campaign on a promise to clean up “that mess in Berkeley” and had already declared a state of emergency in Berkeley in 1968. During this time, demonstrations, meetings, and speeches were banned, and a curfew was imposed.
For weeks after the People’s Park incident, negotiations over the park’s land between the University and the local community continued, and incidents of violence and rallies occurred. For the first time in U.S. history, government helicopters sprayed tear gas on American citizens. Tear gas was dropped on Sproul Plaza, and the gas spread into classrooms and nurseries, where it affected professors, students, staff and children.
The violent conflicts of May 1969 finally relented when local community leaders hosted a peaceful rally of 30,000 people to march through the city of Berkeley. Ever since, UC Berkeley has tried to build dormitories or recreational facilities in People’s Park, while activists have attempted to preserve the ungoverned nature of the space in a constructive manner.
The common theme amongst all the conflicts on the park’s future has been a frigid debate on how to manage open space in modern cities. People’s Park is a unique opportunity for people to speak on how to control their city’s open space for the use of organizing on community-related issues. In the present day, the biggest issue facing the region is increasing homelessness.
Echoing the voices of academics and professionals on the park’s future, UC Berkeley and the Berkeley City Council could explore creative ways to become leaders in solving homelessness. Although students desire more housing, UC Berkeley plans to increase the number of students on campus significantly in the short term, so competition will likely remain the same for student housing. UC Berkeley professors in the Department of Architecture explain how to utilize the space to create other architecturally driven, community-based design projects to combat local issues like malnutrition of homeless people. The park’s significance as a symbol of community and democracy may be forgotten on the national level, but it is not forgotten on the local level.
But whatever happens to the park, we must remain honest about the nature of the dissent toward the university and the City Council’s plan to develop housing. To the Berkeley City Council, how will you communicate with your city differently than government institutions did in the 1960s?
Aryan Taheri is a Molecular & Cellular Biology Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley and a Berkeley resident.