‘People’s Park: Still Blooming’

By Lydia Gans, Special to the Planet
Thursday October 01, 2009 - 09:11:00 AM

People’s Park: Still Blooming, brilliantly compiled by Terri Compost, longtime Park activist and gardener, is a book that grabs your attention. On the cover is a captivating picture of a sweet-faced child peeking out from behind a flower, and, as you look more closely, below it a vaguely familiar black and white photo of a mass of soldiers standing at attention, wearing gas masks and armed with bayonets. The 190-page book contains hundreds of photographs interspersed with short segments of text culled from museum and newspaper archives, and conversations and recollections from a wide variety of sources. It’s an unusual way to construct a book, but it works well. 

The book starts with the history of the park. It is not always a pretty story. Jesse Palmer, in his preface to the book, writes that the university “(disputably) legally owned the land.” Where the park is now, there were houses. The story begins in June 1967 when UC took over the houses, by purchase or by eminent domain, evicted everyone and destroyed the houses. It announced that it planned to build a dormitory on the site. It turned out Cal didn’t have the money to build, nor even enough to clean up the debris-littered lot. It stayed that way for almost two years. 

Finally, on April 20, 1969, a call went out to the community, and hundreds of people gathered to turn the site into a park. They cleared the land, planted trees and flowers, built a children’s playground. For three exhilarating weeks they came and created a true community park while the university dithered. Terri has many quotes in the book about those heady days of park building. A woman recalls, “We were seeing ourselves as basically fighting for the children. This was an unbelievable beautiful place and the energy, the multi-level, the strata, rich, poor, middle-class, working homeless, it was a place for everyone and it was incredibly compelling to be there, that energy was so full of love and joy.” Someone else wrote, “It was a very special experience for Americans. ... It was a time when you were working and you were actually believing in what you were doing.” And there was the member of the Berkeley City Council who warned the Board of Regents that “this is anything but a harmless frolic. ... this cleared land, awaiting development by the university, is being rapidly built into a hippie Disneyland. ... I have been informed by intelligence sources ...” And Ronald Reagan declared, “It should be obvious to every Californian that there are those in our midst who are bent on destroying our society and our democracy and they will go to any ends to achieve their purpose—whether it be a so-called park or a college curriculum.” 

For three weeks there were negotiations and betrayals, promises made and broken, leading up to violent surprise attacks by police and national guard with helicopters spraying tear gas, hundreds of people jailed and abused for protesting, one young person blinded and another, James Rector, killed in police gunfire. It felt like the city of Berkeley was under siege. Accompanied by incredible violence, the university built an eight-foot chain-link fence around the park. It was three years before a massive protest succeeded in tearing down the fence, and the park became a garden. 

From that time on, the story is one of user development, which means, Jesse explains, “the people who use ... the space ... should be the ones who determine how it is developed and operated” through a democratic process of decision making. In contrast to that, the university’s process involves various in-house bureaucrats, who hire high-priced consultants to produce reports which get filed away and may or may not be acted upon. Consequently, over the years there were and still continue to be confrontations over user developments that the university tries to tear down or university impositions that the park users object to. 

There were skirmishes about placement of toilets and the free speech stage, but a major confrontation occur-red in 1991 when the university decided to build volleyball courts in the park. Park users and friends insisted there was no need for or interest in volleyball, but their protests were ignored. A fence was built, bulldozers came in, protests were met with a massive police force and once more there was violence. The photographs of that period show a striking replay of the early days of the park. The volleyball courts were rarely used—the word was that the university offered to pay people to play—and six months later the bulldozers came back and the courts were removed.  

The main message of the book is a positive affirmation eloquently expressed in a cover blurb by Osha Neumann. The park continues to be “... a free space for free people, for the earth and for justice!” The book, he writes, “is full of all the joy, laughter, heartbreak, passion, and courage of all genuine people’s struggles.” On page after page we see an amazing variety of activities and happenings; social activism, promoting progressive causes, free speech and free expression and free food, music, art, dance. There are the exuberant celebrations of the park anniversaries, of Mardi Gras, music festivals and student activities, all richly illustrated with photographs contributed by scores of people whose lives are somehow connected with the park. There are pictures and poems to the plants, flowers, trees and the community garden, descriptions of work parties building the stage and the pergola, and much, much more. One can’t help wondering if there is any other place in the world where so much goes on in such a small space. 

Conflicts with the university flare up fairly regularly, but the park continues to be part of the fabric of Berkeley. The spirit of the park users that has kept it going for 40 years is still there. But the world has changed and the city has changed, there is poverty and homelessness that this generation has not experienced. This has brought a new population of users to the park, people who are homeless. For them, the park is a place of refuge, a life sustaining place to rest, to be free and undisturbed during the day after being in the streets all night. Perhaps part of the battle over the park today is simply holding on to it, making sure that this special place is not lost. Terri’s book is a good reminder of how important that is. 



By Terri Compost. Published by Slingshot Collective. 200 pages. $24.95.