Community Ponders Planned Changes to People’s Park

By Judith Scherr
Friday December 01, 2006

On Wednesday, Dale Rich was where he can often be found, crouched on a slope bordering the south side of People’s Park, wrestling the weeds away from the flowering plants; songbirds chatted noisily in a tree over the head of the volunteer gardener.  

“If you didn’t read the papers, you’d think the park was a little bit of heaven,” he said. “It can be enjoyed by the wealthy or poor—it’s a savior for some.” 

The mound where Rich was working and others nearby could be flattened. A People’s Park Community Advisory Board meeting will be held Monday addressing crime and drug use at park by modifying vegetation and berms. (A berm is a mound or wall of earth.) The meeting is at Trinity Methodist Church 2362 Bancroft Ave. 7-9 p.m. 

University and Berkeley police chiefs believe that by eliminating the mounds and thinning the trees, they could get a better view of what’s going on in the park and decrease drug dealing and use. 

According to Nov. 13 Advisory Committee minutes, the concept, introduced by Berkeley Police Chief Doug Hambleton, is called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, CPTED. The goal is to remove obstructions so that police can see what’s going on in the park from their patrol cars. 

At the woodsy west end of the park, a reporter was engaged in conversation with three men, one of whom had a pit bull on a leash. A UC Berkeley bike cop rode up, smiling and amiable: “It smells like marijuana here,” she said, then joked with the men in a friendly way.  

Asked what she thought about cutting back the vegetation and getting rid of the mounds to see better into the park, the officer, who declined to give her name, commented: “that’s lazy policing,” then sped off on her bike. 

Unperturbed by the officer’s brief presence, the men continued to chat among themselves and with the reporter. Asked what they thought of the plan to cut back vegetation and remove the hills, one man, who identified himself only as a park regular, said he thought it should be kept as it is. 

“This is a real natural place to get away from the city,” he said, pointing to a squash and green tomatoes half-hidden under thick leaves nearby. “It’s a nice, quiet space.” 

After Cody’s on Telegraph shut its doors last summer, city government focused on Telegraph Avenue problems. Some—particularly City Council candidate George Beier, a member of the People’s Park advisory board—pointed to People’s Park as a magnet for criminals and the fundamental reason for vacant storefronts on Telegraph Avenue. 

Led by Councilmember Kriss Worthington and Mayor Tom Bates, the council voted to restore bicycle police patrols and mental health services to the Telegraph area. 

“Violent crime in the park is down slightly over the previous year, but liquor violations and simple assaults are up,” according to Nov. 13 advisory committee minutes. 

Terry Compost, longtime People’s Park volunteer gardener and supporter, differentiated between perceived and actual personal safety. Many of the park users are homeless or have mental health issues. “A lot of them make (other) people very nervous,” Compost said.  

She fears the university is taking advantage of the current debate over park safety to take over the space the community has fought to preserve over some 40 years. 

“The university jumps on every opportunity to try to take control, to get rid of vestiges of community control. It’s sad that growing out of fear, people are willing to give up freedoms,” Compost said. 

There is little disagreement that the best thing for the park is use, said Community Relations Director Irene Hegarty. There’s a chess tournament on Sunday. Music events, literary readings and theatre have been suggested both by Compost and the university. 

On Wednesday, around noon, the park was well-used. Some 35 people scattered around the park. Two men slept on the stage, about 10 university-looking young men were playing basketball, small groups of people sat scattered on the grass or on blankets reading books or newspapers, chatting, eating or sleeping.  

A couple of moms pushed toddlers through the park in strollers; Thomas, who declined to give his last name, was selling the newspaper Street Spirit. One man was putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle over near the park office.  

“There are no puzzles that cannot be solved,” he said.