Before the tour busses roll in (see our accompanying Planet piece), I want tourists to know I was here first.
Although, I have lived a hop-skip-and-a-jump from the fabled park for 32 years, I didn't hang there much—avoided it, frankly—until last year when I began regular coverage of the park for the Planet.
Here's what a certain type of tourist might like, if the tourist is an adventure, slum, alternative, or action type of tourist; there all types of tourists, with all sorts of taste.
You will find, as did I when I first began frequenting it, almost daily, that Berkeley's People's Park is not easy to penetrate, but some active (rather than passive) tourists might welcome the challenge.
Park users are an open, gregarious lot, who will be happy—if not compelled by alcohol and drugs—to tell you their stories and amaze you with tales free-wheeling lifestyles based on a terrible freedom, "another word for nothing left to lose," according to Bobby McGee
if you hang around long enough you might learn how things work in the park.
The park is "supervised" by a site co-ordinator, although his title changes, and it is tended by university groundskeepers, and rest-room maintenance personnel, all paid for by the park's owner, the Regents of the University of California, who provisionally allow your use—under park rules.
According to WIKI, People's Park is a 2.8-acre plot of land in Berkeley, California, USA, a park off Telegraph Avenue, bounded by Haste and Bowditch streets and Dwight Way, near the University of California, Berkeley. The park was created during the radical political activism of the late 1960s.
There are more than fifty People's Parks around the world, but none has its own WIKI page, or world-wide fame. Visiting the park is up there with Lincoln's Tomb, and it lies in the heart of Berkeley's student ghetto, near Berkeley's so-called center, a half-block away.
Botanical tourists will find exotic flora, all planted by volunteer "community gardeners," who wince whenever the university comes into the park for regular "pruning" (with bulldozers recently), last year.
You may notice the park is divided into camps, each with its own teeming life. The West end is a park bench society sharing common lifestyle interests. The main park lifestyle is homelessness, mental illness, and various drug use or dealing.
The landmark People's Park stage, recently repainted by community volunteers, is near the West end. This is the location of daily vegetarian free-meals, provided by Food Not Bombs. If you tour at 3 p.m. daily you will be able to get to know park denizens as well as free-mealers.
You might get to meet one of the park founders, although their numbers are dwindling.
Like a kaleidoscope, the scene changes. One day you might witness a chain-whipping or fist-fight, or a demonstration. Demos in the park take place in trees these days (on hiatus now) from Camp Tree-Sit at the northeast corner of the park, where a wounded forty-foot cedar tree has lost its lower branches to the university, which has effectively bared access to its uppermost perch.
AKA Camp Running Wolf, this tree-sitting out post is named for the park-controversial, Running Wolf. RW to his inner circle, Running Wolf brought the university to its knees four years ago with a three-year continuous tree-sit at Cal's nearby football stadium, which cost the university more than a million dollars and delayed construction on a new Cal football stadium.
Most park regulars despise the tree-sits because they bring heat from park police. But the tree-sitters remain determined to continue "sticking it to the university," as they did four years ago.
Ironically, Camp Hate, the scourge of tree-sits is close-by, in the park's far South East sector, directly across the street from another tourist attraction—First Church of Christ, Scientist, Berkeley, designed by Bernard Maybeck.
Camp Hate was founded a decade ago by Berkeley's most famous eccentric in a town of them, a 75 year old former New York Times reporter in the sixties. Hate Man will sell photo ops, and regale tourists with journalism stories. If you really score maybe he will "push you" for a cigarette or a photo—whatever.
Be sure to tour Hate Man. He's expecting you. Talk with Hate Camp veterans , Ace Backwards, Berkeley's voice of a forgotten Berkeley underground, or the gifted chaos-artist, Planet, who is the park's clothes horse (most of it street score or thrift shop).
Park regulars have strong opinions on everything, especially the park, which they believe is on the verge of being taken away from them by the university, one way (by force) or another (driving them out by replacing them with affluent students—or tourists).
Be sure to have someone point out the surveillance cameras in the park. Where else in the world could you be directed to a camera, only to see nothing there. So entrenched is the urban myth that your informants do not hesitate to point to the spot where you cannot see a camera—so strong is their religious faith.
Ask park regulars about the soon-to-open student dorm across the street from the West end, signaling, they say, the university's park take-over.
Stay for sunset spinning the park into gold over this patch of costly paradise before you head back to your hotel room, should you score one. Berkeley reportedly is short on hotel space.
You won't be able to wait to show your souvenirs to friends back in Peoria or Singapore or Panmunjom.
This could be the introduction to our South side reporter's next book: "People's Park on the Cheap, Weirdo Tourism in a Dystopian Age."