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The New Battle for Berkeley's People's Park

By Ted Friedman
Friday February 03, 2012 - 10:19:00 AM
Before the ambulance came, Monday, near Peoples Park's Camp-Hate.  "Sunshine," an itinerate, who has been recently spending most of her time in People's Park, telling police she was beaten and robbed of $40. People's Park Advisory board meeting was near-by.
Ted Friedman
Before the ambulance came, Monday, near Peoples Park's Camp-Hate. "Sunshine," an itinerate, who has been recently spending most of her time in People's Park, telling police she was beaten and robbed of $40. People's Park Advisory board meeting was near-by.

Craig Becker, owner of Berkeley's legendary Caffe Mediterraneum, popped in on an impromptu meeting of the People's Park Advisory Board in the park, Monday. He is well on his way to becoming, a park activist, a category, he often disparages. But he's trapped in the new battle for People's Park, and can't extricate himself. 

Becker was, as usual, up to his eyeballs in People's Park politics. In recent weeks, he had circulated a petition-letter supporting UC Berkeley’s unannounced mulching of park flora last month, which removed years of cherished community gardening. 

He had, only moments before, put the finishing touches on yet another letter, this one a riposte to the Daily Californian, which had seemed to criticize the university for being insensitive to People’s Park's past, and for not telling anyone it was poised to swoop down on the park. 

Becker, president of a Telegraph Avenue property-owners association, doesn't need prior notice from the university, he writes. "That is not our issue." 

Christine Shaff, university communications director for Facilities Services, the university department responsible for an all-day operation, December 28, which bulldozed the park's west end, responded, last Friday, to false reports recently that the operation had begun at 4 a.m. 

The operation began at 7 a.m., she insisted. "Seven a.m. is the beginning of our work day," she said. "We had to use non-university grounds keepers, because our staff doesn't perform eight-hour shifts in a single location." 

Park activists had seen a conspiracy in the sub-contractor angle. 

Park activists smelled a rat when the university blamed the park rats for what some activists referred to, in a press release (Jan. 13) as "indiscriminate vandalism." 

The historic berms, or mounds, at the northwest and southwest park quadrants were lopped off because rats hid in them, Shaff said. Remains of the 1969 university asphalt parking lot destroyed by protestors are entombed beneath the berms. 

Other park artifacts such as the vine-covered pergola were hide-outs for rats, she claimed.  

Leaky hoses were also repaired, she said. New trash cans, and afternoon trash pick-ups may also help control the park's rat problems, according to Shaff. 

Characterizing the alleged "raid," as "all about maintenance," she conceded the following three reasons for the action: 

(1) Becker's Letter, Aug. 9, which called for many of the park changes accomplished Dec. 28; 

(2) the need for UCPD to have clearer views of drug dealers hiding in overgrown bushes, cacti, and vines; 

(3) the projected fall opening of a $70 million, 424-bed student dorm overlooking the park's drug-dealing west end. 

Additional lighting is underway, Shaff reported. "Less than ten" new lights will be added. They will be no brighter than existing ones, she promised. 

Becker and his Teley property owner supporters believe the stripping of the west end of the park was a "first baby step" towards improvements, and has changed his long-standing opposition to the university's park policies. He now praises the university for acting in December. 

Becker had a modest park proposal at Monday's meet. Drawing on a 2008 university-financed marketing report, which he feels the university was remiss in not implementing sooner, he suggested implementing the report's recommendation to create four corner "entrances" to the park. 

Becker selected the Park's northwest corner, as a starting point. "It's hardly inviting, or welcoming as it stands." he said. Asked whether a new entrance might endanger the historic Council Grove, site of 1969 planning meetings, Becker seemed upset. 

He, and his fellow Telegraph Avenue property owners , are fed up with the sacred park history argument, often used, they say, by "park activists," to halt progress. Referring to Council Grove, as "just a pile of dirt," Becker revised his hasty response with, "Council Grove could be preserved, even featured, in plans to make the NW park corner an attractive gateway to the park." 

Other proposals at the ad hoc meeting included solving the half-century of troubled drainage in the park, which causes a recurring swamp in the center. The ground under us Monday was still soggy after rains last week. The park’s bathroom, and children's playground area need upgrading. Other ideas: a People's Park Arch; restoring the peace-sign log sculpture. 

Michael Delacour, a park founder, in 1969, and the longest continuous park activist—still active after all these years, gave another one of his famous speeches, this one a history of the park's restrooms. No one knows the park like Delacour, who still works in the park regularly. 

The People's Park Advisory Board, a university adjunct, has been hibernating since last fall—at least—since no one can remember when last it met. Becker's letter to the DC blames the advisory board's hiatus on a "cadre of activists, who zealously protect the status quo." 

While not a cadre, Becker heads an organization of Telegraph property owners, which has been increasingly active in the new battle for hearts and minds in People's Park. 

According to Becker, moderate advisory board members, "who felt significant changes needed to be made in the park—resigned…in frustration." 

Becker's 800 word letter to the Daily Cal comes from long- smoldering disgust with what he characterizes as the park's unsanitary, unsafe, anti-social, and unwelcoming conditions. 

"Many commercial district's throughout the country have pleasant parks….People's Park is an anomaly that is anything but pleasant for the average citizen," the letter complains. 

During Monday's meeting, the usual non-average citizens, who are the park's prime visitors (and stayers) lolled nearby. While the park advisors-in-waiting advised each other (no university representatives attended), a typical scene unfolded in the North east corner. 

"Sunshine," a long-time street person on the South side, was being once more rescued by her friends at Berkeley Fire, paramedics, and Berkeley Police. She seemed beaten, and bruised—dispirited, having been robbed of $40, she said. 

As she was assisted into an ambulance, she waved goodbye to the cop who had rescued her. 

Delacour was shivering in the cold. He had learned of the meeting at the last minute, and rushed over from his nearby apartment. Michael Reagan (no son of Governor Ronald, who sparked the 1969 riots ), a member of the official park advisory board, had called the meeting. 

He said the meeting was unofficial. 

The People's Park Defense Committee is sponsoring, Saturday Feb. 4, a "benefit fundraiser, for a volunteer activist park." The all-acoustic show will feature Antioquia, Mana + Family, Andrea Pritchett, Phoenix, and Food Not Bombs. 

The event is scheduled for 6-10 p.m., at the Art House Gallery and Cultural Center, 2905 Shattuck Avenue (between Ashby and Russell). Donation: $10.