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People's Park, once a symbol of peace, turns into a battleground in housing wars

Efforts by UC Berkeley to build dorms on the open space created in the 1960s face stiff opposition from residents amid California's critical shortage of places to live.
Image: People's Park
A woman walks near a sign for People's Park in Berkeley, Calif., on July 18, 2019. Jeff Chiu / AP

BERKELEY, Calif. — For more than half a century since activists created People’s Park in a spirit of peace and brotherhood, it’s been a battlefield.

The University of California’s attempts over the years to build on the land, which it owns, have never failed to inspire protests. The park became a sacred symbol of resistance and the 1960s idealism this town has long embraced.

But these days, many associate People’s Park with something else Berkeley’s famous for — a lack of affordable housing. The 55 or so people who sleep in tents there are a vivid illustration of California’s housing crisis, which has become especially dire in college towns like Berkeley as universities continue to expand enrollment.

Last fall, taking advantage of the shifting political winds on the issue, the UC Regents voted to build below-market accommodations for some 1,100 undergraduates on the scrubby 2.8-acre patch just off Telegraph Avenue.

Chancellor Carol Christ stressed that UC Berkeley’s $312 million plan for “a renewed People’s Park” included permanent supportive housing for about 100 homeless residents. More than half the park will remain open space and will commemorate the site's turbulent history.

Image: People's Park
Homeless tents are seen in People's Park from this drone view in Berkeley, Calif., on Feb. 9, 2021. Jane Tyska / East Bay Times via Getty Images file

Those features were crucial to securing support for the project, which Christ has billed as a bold attempt to address the national crisis of homelessness, as well as UC Berkeley’s chronic student housing shortage. On March 9, she and Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín announced that the university and the city would provide interim housing in a local motel for those sleeping in the park.

“This is, we believe, far more in line with the founding ideals of the park than its current state,” UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said.

People’s Park has long functioned as a sanctuary for the poor in Berkeley, where volunteers hand out hot meals and pick up discarded needles. Since the pandemic ebbed and authorities have resumed enforcing strict rules prohibiting people from sleeping in public places, the park has become home to one of the city’s last sprawling homeless encampments.

When construction begins this summer, those currently camping in the park will be offered accommodations at the Rodeway Inn, Christ and Arreguín said. The campus and the city have leased 42 rooms with kitchenettes and housekeeping for 18 months; a nonprofit group will provide them with health care, counseling and help finding a permanent place to live.

Image: People's Park
People's Park in Berkeley, Calif., on Sept. 28, 2021. Scott Strazzante / San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images file

The move marked another step in the chancellor’s effort to sell her ambitious vision for the iconic park, which the city opposed when she first unveiled it in 2018. But last year, Arreguín and the city council agreed to drop their legal objections to the People’s Park plan and another for a 14-story luxury building to house transfer students after the university agreed to pay the city nearly $83 million over the next 16 years to cover the costs of police, fire safety and other services.

To make way for the latter project, the university tore down a 112-year-old, rent-controlled building, prompting protests from the displaced residents.

Similar clashes between residents and universities are occurring across the country, said Davarian Baldwin, a professor of American studies at Trinity College in Connecticut, who wrote the book “In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Cities.”

“Students are sent into towns to find their housing, their amenities and their recreation,” Baldwin said, adding that undergraduates will crowd into single-family homes and disturb neighbors with beer-soaked parties.

In Berkeley, some neighborhood groups have filed lawsuits to block the university from “gobbling up” the city without considering the impact on traffic, noise and other issues important to residents.

“We are defending the park on behalf of residents who desperately need green open space,” said Max Ventura, a member of the People’s Park Council.

The California Supreme Court recently handed a controversial victory to one of those residents’ groups, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, which sued to block the university's growth on environmental grounds.

The ruling would have forced UC Berkeley to drastically reduce its fall enrollment if not for an eleventh-hour reprieve Monday when Gov. Gavin Newson signed a bill that will override the court order.

The move comes as the 10-campus UC system is under pressure to accept more low-income and racially diverse students without nearly enough places for them to live. More than 16,000 University of California and California State University students were on waitlists for housing this fall, according to a report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

The shortage has forced institutions to resort to such measures as assigning 24-hour parking spaces to students sleeping in their cars and planning “megadorms” with windowless rooms.

Berkeley houses only about a fifth of its undergraduates, fewer than any other UC campus. The university projects it will add about 12,000 students over the next 15 years and wants to build 11,700 beds to keep up with that growth.

Its attempts to transform the site that is now People's Park go back to the mid-1960s when the university used eminent domain to bulldoze about 30 homes on a parcel a few blocks south of the campus. With the Free Speech and the anti-Vietnam War movements raging, many believed the university’s claim that it needed the land to build dorms was simply a pretext for ousting hippies.

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National Guardsmen stand guard on the other side of a steel mesh fence erected by University of California officials around People's Park in Berkeley, Calif., on May 15, 1969. AP

After construction stalled, students and locals decided in the spring of 1969 to transform the muddy lot into a community green space, laying sod and installing play equipment.

When they refused to stand down after the university tried to retake the property, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan sent in tanks and National Guard troops to “clean up the mess.” The ensuing conflict exploded into a bloody street fight that left one man dead and another blind, with dozens more injured.

Steve Wasserman and his fellow students at Berkeley High School staged a sit-in to protest the violence at People’s Park, which he called “our Gettysburg.”

Wasserman, who is now the publisher of Heyday Books, acknowledged that the idea that “some grounds are sacred, because blood was spilled there” looks like nostalgia to young people who are facing stiffer and stiffer competition for a roof over their heads.

“People say, ‘Just get over it.’ Well, you don’t just get over history,” he said. 

In the years after Bloody Thursday, as it came to be known, UC Berkeley undertook several ill-fated efforts to turn the park into a soccer field and a parking lot. In 1991, the university installed beach volleyball courts that prompted rioting and vandalism. The school hired 24-hour guards to protect the courts before finally giving up and dismantling them a few years later. Even efforts to remove 42 trees in 2018 prompted suspicion and outrage.

With homelessness growing in the Bay Area, the nonprofit group Food Not Bombs began serving free meals in the park in 1989, while the Suitcase Clinic provided medical care. But the park also became a magnet for surging crime. Amid criticism that the university was turning a blind eye to the situation, UC Berkeley hired a full-time social worker in 2017 to oversee the park and the surrounding blocks.

Ari Neulight now patrols the area five days a week, performing tasks from handing out granola bars and socks to helping people fill out the stacks of paperwork necessary to apply for government social services.

“Mostly it’s about having someone to help people get to a place where they can trust that things could be different,” he said.

Whether UC Berkeley’s latest experiment in People’s Park can succeed remains an open question. 

“There’s got to be some balance,” said Judy Gumbo, a longtime Berkeley resident who remembers helping to build the park in 1969, standing shoulder to shoulder with hippies, professors and members of the Black Panther Party.

“Yes, the students need housing,” she said. “But is it necessary to build a gigantic, ugly building in what was a beautiful ecological place?”

Yet, she acknowledged that the old People’s Park is gone.

“People got scared, people got older — for whatever reason — they were not able to sustain those utopian values,” she said. “And that’s a shame.”