Finding Community at People’s Park 50th Anniversary

Michael Gethers, The Daily Californian

On Cal Day 2019, I put campus to my back and walked south on Bowditch toward People’s Park to attend its 50th anniversary celebration, trying to connect with this rich piece of Berkeley history. It was my first time properly stepping into the park; before, I’d only ever walked around its perimeter. If I wanted to get from Dwight to Haste, I would walk around the edge of the park, even if cutting through it was faster and easier.

This behavior is normal for Cal students. Many of us choose to cross to the north side of Haste so we have some distance between us and the park. Many of us express fear about the park–fear which is, to some extent, valid; crime rates are high, it’s not well lighted, and verbal harassment is common.

But this isn’t the image People’s Park has always had. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to hear folks compare the 1960s Park with its current self; ex-mayor Tom Bates, who was a part of the original 1969 People’s Park movement, admitted that the park has fallen from grace. He claims that the park used to be a symbol for activism and community, but now has fallen into a haven crime and drug use. But is that juxtaposition totally true?

The day of the anniversary celebration the weather was beautiful, musicians were on stage, and whole families were sitting in the grass, watching the day pass. It was a scene completely at odds with the seedy People’s Park I had always imagined. My immediate reaction was to assume that this sense of peace and community is anomalous. But those who frequent the park told me that, in their experience, it’s commonplace for the park to feel like that.

I spoke with Aidan Hill, a member of the green party and a People’s Park advocate, who often interacts with the homeless population in the park. When I asked about the general attitude toward converting the park into affordable housing or shelters for the homeless, he surprised me by saying that most of the residents would rather live in the park itself, as a single, autonomous community.

Berkeley gathers together for an earlier People’s Park Anniversary, credit: Ted Friedman

I also spoke with Michael, a park advocate who took part in 1991 protests against the UC Regents. We discussed the increase of urban sprawl in Berkeley. “It’s getting denser,” he told me, referring to the glut of new construction around the city. The comment felt claustrophobic, bringing to mind an image of gray circling closer and closer around a single green space. And that’s a surprisingly accurate picture; People’s Park is one of the only green spaces left on south side.

Michael and Aidan agreed that access to nature is integral to the formation of the People’s Park community. As an example, Michael pointed toward the community garden, a physical manifestation of intersection between nature and public unity.

This intersection wasn’t just present in the garden–it was all around me during the anniversary concert. For the first time since I came to Berkeley, People’s Park lived up to its name. It acted as a true public green space with positive effects for the local population. It became a physical bridge between the housed and the homeless, the UC student population and local families. The population spanned multiple generations, abilities, socio-economic levels, and races. They came to feel the grass under their feet, listen to music, admire the garden, help plant trees.

When I walked past the park a few days later, it was back to normal. I felt my usual bit of uneasiness as I walked past. It was back to the drug-and-crime People’s Park of today’s imagination. But I don’t think that’s how it has to be, especially now that I’ve seen the park in its ideal form, as a space for communal unity, bonding over nature.

Having access to this green space is a huge asset for our community–at least a huge potential asset. Using the park as a local citizen is definitely a bit unnerving; I have plenty of my own reservations about stepping in there. But the power of a local, public green space is undeniable, and if the park could once again become a flagship community center of Berkeley, I think we would all have a better understanding of its rich history and the invaluable role of public nature in our community.

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