May 24, 2024

Earlier than the primary shrubs and hunks of sod, earlier than the saplings and the flower beds, earlier than the people artwork and anything-goes efficiency stage, Folks’s Park was an concept.

It could be an open house for open individuals, within the coronary heart of this college city, birthed by Sixties radicals and nurtured by subsequent generations of freethinkers who believed within the notion that individuals would maintain and help each other, if solely that they had a spot to collect.

The utopian ultimate of Folks’s Park lived within the hearts of many individuals within the many years following its 1969 founding, at the same time as neglect and the shortage of a cohesive imaginative and prescient noticed the house devolve into the darker reaches wrought by homelessness, drug use and despair.

However the dream of a people-powered open house that answered to no highly effective establishment — least of all of the grandees of the adjoining UC Berkeley campus — seems on the breaking point. Almost 55 years after activists seized the park and declared it the individuals’s place, the college retook management of the scruffy 2.8-acre inexperienced house this week with a large police deployment and the erection of a formidable barrier fabricated from metal cargo containers, stacked two-high.

UC Berkeley now seems nearer to realizing its plan to develop the park web site than at any time in its lengthy and contentious historical past. The college is ready for a state Supreme Courtroom choice that it hopes will clear the best way for building of a high-rise dormitory advanced for 1,100 college students and an condo constructing to accommodate as many as 125 low-income and beforehand homeless individuals.

Few protesters have been readily available early Thursday, when UC Berkeley launched an operation throughout college students’ winter break to safe Folks’s Park.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Occasions)

“I actually hope it’s a watershed second,” Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ mentioned in a cellphone interview Friday. “If you consider what essentially the most pressing want in our communities is, it’s housing. Now we have a dire scarcity of scholar housing; we even have a dire scarcity of everlasting supportive housing for the homeless.”

The previous English literature professor, who’s retiring this summer season, mentioned she believes the park’s redevelopment will go down as “one of the crucial necessary issues I’ve carried out.”

Even some die-hard supporters of Folks’s Park — who through the years have mounted fierce bodily and authorized battles to protect it as a residing tribute to activism — concede the park’s days seem numbered.

“I feel it’ll take one thing of a miracle for the opposition to succeed now,” mentioned Steve Wasserman, who helped domesticate the park as a teen and many years later printed a historical past on the fiftieth anniversary of the occasion. “However for these of us who helped construct the park and have been its stewards, and who search to ensure that the flame of riot is just not totally snuffed out, Berkeley has all the time been the Republic of Misplaced Causes. This is likely one of the nice ones.”

Folks’s Park, lengthy an emblem of individuals energy, had degraded lately, changing into a haven for homeless camps and drug use.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Occasions)

The sharp flip in Folks’s Park’s future got here Thursday, when UC Berkeley launched a pre-dawn incursion, sending in a whole lot of legislation enforcement officers who secured the positioning and cleared the best way for crews to wall off the storied house. UC launched the extraordinary operation simply after midnight, deploying building crews to erect a 17-foot-high fortification by double-stacking heavy steel cargo containers across the park perimeter. By beginning the train whereas most college students have been away on winter break, college leaders minimized the raucous backlashes which have bedeviled earlier makes an attempt by campus officers to take management of the park. Police met minimal resistance, and by noon Friday, Folks’s Park was encased in its new metal bulwark.

That Folks’s Park may very well be nearing its finish is, in some ways, a mirrored image of the altering politics of the town, the college and the state.

Even in reliably left-wing Berkeley, the thought of what it means to be progressive has shifted lately. With rents round city spiraling ever upward, college students determined to search out reasonably priced items and the ranks of homeless individuals rising, the college confronted super stress to construct new housing. And even some “good liberals” — as soon as decidedly anti-development — got here to favor housing building.

The college additionally discovered itself on the receiving finish of a drumbeat of criticism, a lot of it from college students and fogeys, that Folks’s Park had turn out to be a magnet for drug use, muggings and violent crimes. The idyllic human crossroads envisioned by founders appeared, at greatest, a nostalgic craving to many park neighbors.

One other blow has include the demise of most of the park’s founders, thinning the ranks of those that would bear any burden for the house, mentioned Wasserman, writer of Berkeley-based Heyday Books and “The Battle for Folks’s Park, Berkeley 1969.”

A lone demonstrator faces armed troops.

Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan known as in Nationwide Guard troops to assist quell bloody riots over the fencing off of Folks’s Park in 1969.

(Related Press)

On campus Friday, Andrew Paul Gutierrez, a retired professor of environmental science, handed out fliers protesting Israel’s struggle in Gaza. Gutierrez, 84, mentioned he believed the town and college’s time as a “magical place” had waned, supplanted by a group that had turn out to be “extra company, extra businesslike” and fewer defiant of establishments.

One of many park’s earlier activists, Judy Gumbo, recalled a better degree of fervor within the spring of 1969, when her deliberate march for ladies’s rights was upended by competition over the fledgling park. UC Berkeley had erected a fence on the web site and despatched in armed officers to attempt to take again the house, sparking a bloody confrontation with college students and activists. She recalled urgent so onerous in opposition to the newly erected fence that the chain-link left diamond-shaped welts on her palms.

“These of us who have been right here when the park was based have rather more of a way of emotional connection to it than the younger individuals” who’re college students now, mentioned Gumbo, 80.

By Friday morning, the park as Gumbo knew it was no extra. Police strains stored any remaining protesters — and there gave the impression to be only a few — no less than half a block from the park. The inexperienced house that had been the scene of impromptu concert events, chess matches, basketball video games and drug offers had been largely bulldozed, most of the bushes felled, and cordoned off by the graffitied transport containers.

Law enforcement officers create a perimeter around People's Park.

UC Berkeley deployed a whole lot of legislation enforcement officers within the pre-dawn hours Thursday in an effort to safe Folks’s Park and clear the best way for building crews to cordon off the positioning.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Occasions)

Inside, yellow-vested building staff stuffed gaps within the fortification with steel plates. Cleanup crews collected piles of trash and detritus. Flies swarmed over a rat flattened by building tools.

Wasserman sounded a wistful word for the park’s founding, which he known as “a golden second, and the utopian longings of that interval for peace, love and a spot the place all good issues might thrive.”

“It had been an eyesore. It was only a muddy lot when it rained,” he continued. “And so a gaggle of ne’er-do-wells, mischief makers and various Yippies determined to show it right into a park that was free for all. It actually caught the creativeness of individuals in Berkeley and past.”

Andrea Pritchett, a member of the Folks’s Park Council advocacy group, blamed the town of Berkeley and the college for betraying these beliefs.

“It was a spot the place individuals who have been countercultural or inventive or uncommon might manifest and exist in group,” mentioned Pritchett, 60, a middle-school instructor in Berkeley. “The purpose was that in the event you needed to arrange a gaggle, you sit beneath the shade of the bushes and set up.”

She rejected the concept college leaders reluctantly took management due to a necessity for scholar housing. “It’s all the time been about breaking the again of the counterculture,” Pritchett mentioned. “It’s all the time been about eliminating undesirable populations.”

An activist with a bullhorn at People's Park.

An activist protests UC Berkeley’s efforts to wall off Folks’s Park.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Occasions)

College officers mentioned work on the park safety system needs to be full by Sunday. Streets surrounding the park will then reopen, with safety officers in place “24/7” till the proposed housing advanced, pending courtroom approval, may be accomplished.

Although the park’s supporters have been vocal, the college has the robust help of many Berkeley metropolis leaders and residents, and its surveys present a majority of scholars favor the redevelopment.

Matthew Lewis, spokesperson for the pro-housing group California YIMBY and a Berkeley resident, mentioned that whereas Berkeley has lengthy stood as an emblem of free expression and activism, most of the protesters are lacking the larger image of the college’s plan.

“Now we have an abject housing disaster. Now we have homelessness, like every metropolis in California. Now we have college students sleeping of their automobiles,” Lewis mentioned. “And right here’s a proposal not just for scholar housing, however for supportive housing for individuals experiencing homelessness. It’s precisely what we want.”

Lewis argued that the very individuals activists say they need to assist, the unhoused, could be these most benefiting from the Folks’s Park mission. “Offering supportive housing for them will defend them from the felony exercise that has been occurring in Folks’s Park for many years,” Lewis mentioned.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin echoed these sentiments on the social media platform X. “The present state of Folks’s Park doesn’t replicate the unique beliefs,” he wrote. “Protesters don’t symbolize nearly all of our group who help wanted housing and a brand new imaginative and prescient for the park.”

Christ rejected claims that the college had betrayed its beliefs. She mentioned the mission could be “ultimate in offering shelter and leisure house for the individuals,” with 60% of the property left open and a yet-to-be-designed set up paying tribute to the park’s historical past.

“The park is basically going to be a spot that persons are not scared to go, which is the case now,” Christ mentioned. “Will probably be a group base and one which represents the story and all of the multitude of voices in telling what has occurred there.”

Double-stacked cargo containers at People's Park

By late Friday, Folks’s Park was cordoned off by a wall of double-stacked cargo containers.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Occasions)

Pritchett and a number of other different park activists accused the college of purposefully neglecting the house after which utilizing its degradation as an excuse for shutting it down. She mentioned she didn’t know what was subsequent for Folks’s Park, however hoped it or its spirit would by some means survive.

Others in her group weren’t fairly prepared at hand victory to the college.

“I see this as simply the newest iteration — the flailing arms of the serpent of capitalism because it’s being uncovered for what it’s,” mentioned Maxina Ventura, a homeopath and decades-long member of the Folks’s Park Council. “You possibly can cement it over and maintain assaulting and insulting the park. But it surely’s a lot bigger than any of the people concerned.”