A grassroots group of park advocates rallied this week to encourage residents, students and activists alike to gather at University of California at Berkeley’s California Hall and speak out against UC’s development plan for the historic People’s Park.
At the Monday rally, volunteers from the group People’s Park Council chanted, “power to the people,” and others wove through the roughly 60-person crowd to sign people up for the “bulldozer list.” The university plans to use bulldozers to tear down the park, and the list will function as a group of defenders to contact when they arrive.
Joe Liesner, rally organizer and secretary of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group — one of the other groups opposing the university’s plans — says that developing on park grounds will sully an integral monument to the history of protest and democracy. Monday’s rally was one final attempt to raise awareness before the university starts construction this summer.
“It’s not just history,” Liesner said. “It’s a living example full of some of the most important political and social aspects of having a just and equitable society. It’s nonviolent, and it’s community based. It can demonstrate that people of all classes can share a space together peacefully and to everybody’s advantage.”
Housing over history
On March 9, UC Berkeley, the city of Berkeley and community partners announced a plan to change People’s Park’s landscape. The school plans to build below-market apartments that will house over 1,000 undergraduates to address a chronic lack of student housing.
Since the decision, Berkeleyans who advocate for greenspace and the park’s history have spoken in opposition. UC Berkeley has not since wavered in their plans.
“UC Berkeley’s good for students but toxic for people,” said longtime park frequenter Roosevelt “Rosie” Stephens while addressing the crowd.
Other rally speakers included Liesner, student protesters, lawyers, and Aidan Hill, a Cal graduate and Berkeley City Council candidate in District 7 in the upcoming November election.
UC Berkeley officials were not immediately available to comment on the rally.
People’s Park was built in April 1969 when hundreds of volunteers put down sod at an empty lot on Cal’s campus. In the coming months, the 2.8-acre plot near Telegraph Avenue became a site for radical protest. It was a space for free speech and is now a symbol of resistance and idealism that Berkeleyans like Leisner embrace.
Current Berkeley resident Susan Hoffman was an undergraduate student at the university when People’s Park was created. She witnessed violence that ensued when the university and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan attempted to stop student anti-war protests at the park.
“To me, People’s Park represents the last great idealism that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” said Hoffman. “I mean the ’60s was an incredible era and it was before we lost our innocence, so to speak. We still believed that so much was possible, and our generation made an awful lot of things happen.”
Since the pandemic, the park has become associated with another famous Berkeley characteristic — a lack of affordable housing. It is now a homeless encampment with about 55 residents. Nonprofit organizations like East Bay Food Not Bombs have since assisted in providing food and needed services at the park.
To support the park’s current unhoused residents, UC officials, along with nonprofit Resources for Community Development, will build a permanent housing solution on current park grounds with approximately 100 apartments, coupled with needed services. When construction begins this summer, they will be offered temporary housing at a Rodeway Inn. Rallygoers say this is not enough, fearing that Chancellor Carol Christ has oversimplified the problem.
“Adding more housing would be good,” said sophomore performing arts major Nhi Hoang, “but I don’t feel like it’s a good decision to build on People’s Park because of how much land and unused buildings we have on the city in the campus already.”
“To me, People’s Park represents the last great idealism that I’ve seen in my lifetime. I mean the ’60s was an incredible era and it was before we lost our innocence, so to speak. We still believed that so much was possible, and our generation made an awful lot of things happen.”Susan Hoffman, People’s Park supporter
Protesters often brought up the several under-used plots on campus that may work for student housing without threatening the park, including the parking structure on Ellsworth Street and Channing Way.
UC Berkeley’s park plan seems inevitable, but park supporters still celebrate recent victories. Neighborhood groups have filed lawsuits to stop the university from developing without considering the impact on the city, and the Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods group was recently victorious in the California Supreme Court. Most recently, People’s Park was put on the National Register of Historic Places.
Tuesday was the last day that residents of the park were able to stay without police removal, according to Leisner. People’s Park advocates expect to reach out to the 600-person and growing bulldozer list any day now.