Election Section

Recent People's Park Incidents Spark Controversy, Ignite Nov. District 7 Councilman Race (COMMENTARY)

by Ted Friedman
Monday September 13, 2010 - 05:40:00 PM

Recent Daily Californian front page stories reporting violent events in People's Park have sparked a barrage of flaming comments on-line. 

The following blow-torch comment is typical: "...but for the bums who insist on having their drugs and booze handy at all times, screw 'em--let them sleep on concrete or, better still, run them out of town." 

People's Park, always the eye of a hurricane, has become a political hot-potato in the November elections for the district 7 council seat. 

Two of the candidates' stated positions would bring sweeping changes to the troubled park and adjacent neighborhoods. Although couched in code, like "multi-use," and even "soccer field," such proposals sound suspiciously like "run them out of town." 

As a Berkeleyan living a half block from the park for 30 years, I walk through or around the park daily. Thirty years of personal experience with the park, plus informal interviews with former park activists, park users, and park neighbors have emboldened me to speak out. 

I say "emboldened," not so much as pose, but to suggest that saying anything about People's Park is sure to bumble on someone's toes. 

By the early Nineteen 70s, the park site had become a dusty pit. And too hot to handle. 

It then stewed and percolated until a committed group of park activists donated thousands of hours of landscaping to create a tropical outer periphery. 

Restrooms and a custodian's office followed. Dust became lawn, and it all seemed good. A children's playground was added. A basketball court proved popular. 

But a volley-ball sand pit and nets were wildly unpopular. Protests led directly to the removal of the sand pits and nets. They were replaced by a grassy meadow. 


Perhaps volleyball courts were seen as too reminiscent of the playing field that had sparked riots in '69, which led to a National Guard occupation of Berkeley, a death, a blinding, and injuries to 128. 

Note that District 7 candidate, George Beier, proposes to construct a soccer field in the park. Note it in context with the park's bloody history! 

From its beginnings the park has been haunted by violence, surveillance, and suspicion. No one is really "shocked" that inter-park skirmishes break out regularly. 

I see troubled interactions in the park so often that I barely notice; although I would have certainly noticed, had I been there, the incidents of violence, assault, and intimidation of park workers as reported Aug. 30 in the Daily Cal. 

Many of my friends who donated the thousands of hours of landscaping that gives the park the look we now know, have soured on the park.  

The park, formerly well within its own borders, has spilled into adjoining streets, like mine. By day and night, Hillegass and Regent have become a People's Park annex where unwanted items are abandoned and business, arguments, and fights are conducted. 

Often, a narrow strip running from Hillegass to Regent on Dwight Way is filled with shopping carts stuffed sky-high, mattresses, books, bottles, blankets, and moldy food. 

Regulars, barred from the park at night, camp up and down Hillegass and Regent. Mostly, this arrangement, uncomfortable for everyone, is barely tolerable. But it may not always be tolerable at all.  

Especially if changes to the park leave regular users nowhere else to go. Make no mistake, they will not leave town, nor will they ever opt out of a migration going back at least to the sixties. 

Would Willard park neighbors take an outpouring from People's Park in their backyards? 

While candidates Beier and Cecelia Rosales bellow change, incumbent Kriss Worthington continues working with university committees and city agencies to improve the park and neighborhoods. 

Fourteen years of negotiating with the University, may be keeping Worthington from airing half-baked proposals. He may know better. 

As national politics amply shows, proposals for change are not the same as actual results. Changes in the park have occurred slowly, and fitfully. Typically, in response to or initiated by public action. 

Changed ordinances, a Beier goal, depend on enforcement. 

But the city's outside smoking ordinance is not enforced. Know anyone who has been ticketed for cell-phoning while driving? Or drunk and disorderly and blocking walks... while smoking?  

In the meantime, residents of bordering neighborhoods are turning against the park, as my own findings and the Daily Cal's Peoples Park posted comments confirm. 

The cauldron that is the park continues to boil. 

Perhaps we've moved beyond the "can't we all get along here?" to "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"  

Ted Friedman, a 40 year Berkeley resident, has lived 30 years a half block from People's Park.