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People’s Park Celebrates 40 Years

By Lydia Gans Special to the Planet
Thursday April 30, 2009 - 07:30:00 PM
Richard Brenneman
            People of all stripes joined in the 40th anniversary celebration of People’s Park Sunday afternoon.
Richard Brenneman
Richard Brenneman People of all stripes joined in the 40th anniversary celebration of People’s Park Sunday afternoon.
The crowds were treated to music and food at People’s Park for its 40th anniversary.
Lydia Gans
The crowds were treated to music and food at People’s Park for its 40th anniversary.
The anniversary attracted celebrants of all ages.
Richard Brenneman
The anniversary attracted celebrants of all ages.

Sunday’s 40th anniversary celebration of People’s Park reflected Berkeley in all its passionate quirkiness. More than 1,000 people joined the party, from old- timers who remember the riots when it all started, to students for whom it is all ancient history—and everyone in between.  

There was music and speechifying, dancing and eating, hanging out with old and new friends. The mood was one of exuberance, people celebrating the existence of the park and being together to enjoy the occasion. Even the weather cooperated; despite forecasts of possible rain, the day was clear and sunny. 

Devin Woolridge, a site coordinator for the park who experiences it daily with all its ups and downs, with all the contentiousness and occasions of cooperation among its denizens, was ecstatic Sunday. “This is Utopia—so much positive stuff going on here.... This event is what I’ve been told and what I believe People’s Park is all about.” This is the biggest anniversary celebration Woolridge has seen in his 10 years working at the park. 

There was action on and around the stage throughout the day. A wildly diverse mix of performers appealed to an audience of all ages. A Berkeley High School band called “IS,” the Shelley Doty X-Tet, Jonathan Richman’s group and others with exotic names and music styles had people up and dancing with abandon. The graceful Nefer Tem belly dancers had a routine all their own. Older folks were content to sit and listen or join in song with Phoenix and Country Joe McDonald. It’s been a long time since a crowd sang “This land is your land, this land is my land” with such enthusiasm. There was also a stage out on Telegraph Avenue featuring bands such as Antioquia and Outlaw Dervish which had people dancing in the streets. 

Not surprisingly, there were people who took the stage with a message. City Councilmember Kriss Worthington touched off the celebration by expressing how much People’s Park means to the community. A group called for support to save Strawberry Canyon; Andrea Pritchett announced the opening of a CopWatch office in Oakland; Zachary Running Wolf called for a protest against the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s plan to dismantle the Bevatron and ship thousands of truckloads of radioactive waste through Berkeley streets. And as always, the diminutive figure of artist and filmmaker Claire Burch could be seen, recording the event with a video camera. 

Mellow people sat or wandered about the lawn, connecting with old friends, taking in the sun and the scene. Even the dogs were mellow. An old gentleman named Willie has been coming to the anniversaries on and off since the park started. He wasn’t so sure about the young people of today. But over at the display of photographs of the park through the years there was a constant crowd of young people who appeared intensely interested in its history. A lady calling herself “Maid Marion,” who now lives back east, was here “at the beginning.” She had spent the day before in Big Sur at a celebration of Nepenthe’s 60th anniversary. “This is more of the same,” she said. No doubt many people here would disagree with her on that.  

Near the basketball courts a woman named Sarah and colleagues were offering a chair massage in return for a donation to support Tristan Anderson, the young Berkeley activist severely injured while participating in a protest at the dividing wall in Israel. Slingshot newspaper, which has extensive coverage of Tristan’s case, was being given away at a table nearby. The Naked People were there too, but far fewer of them than in the past. 

While all that was going on, Food Not Bombs volunteers were cooking and serving their usual vegetarian meal under the trees at the eastern end of the park. They set up tables under a canopy and all day long they cooked rice and beans and chopped vegetables to stir-fry in an oversize wok. They also provided bread, salad and an endless supply of Cliff Bars. There was not a moment in the whole afternoon when there wasn’t a long line waiting to be served 

It was a glorious day of Berkeley at its best. Years ago during the earlier confrontations there was a flyer circulating, asking “Who owns the park?” That question is still being asked. The university may have the formal deed to this piece of land, but it was clear on this day who really owns People’s Park. Somebody noted that there was not a single police officer in the park all day. Nor did any official of the university participate in the celebration.  

The people had the last lick at the very end of the day when Food Not Bombs cut up a dozen chocolate cakes and passed them out, giving everybody one final charge of energy.