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Will The World Watch Berkeley's People's Park Again?

By Ted Friedman
Friday July 20, 2012 - 10:42:00 AM
Telegraph business-man, property-owners president Craig Becker reads Chronicle story on People's Park tourism.
Ted Friedman
Telegraph business-man, property-owners president Craig Becker reads Chronicle story on People's Park tourism.

The whole world may again be watching Berkeley's People's Park, if Southside supporters have their way. The last time the whole world watched was 1969—"the Battle for People's Park."

But the whole world's attention can be fickle, and has, over the years, fizzled. I've kept a tourist watch in Berkeley's People's Park for several years, and can report no more than ten tourist sightings, and a few unpublished interviews with them.

The question is whether tourism on Telegraph Avenue has not also fizzled.

Numerous Teley businessmen, and the city's economic planners, attest to tourism declines on Telegraph Avenue. 

Now comes Carolyn Jones, a Chronicle reporter, who reportedly lives in Berkeley, writing Tuesday that the city council was about to "consider a 1 percent assessment on hotel revenue…doubling the city's annual tourism budget…" 

Eighty-eight percent of hotels favored assessing themselves—through their own business improvement district, and Berkeley's city council approved the measure Tuesday. The Hotel Business Districts could cough up $400,000 for city coffers, according to estimates. 

Now comes your typical Southside brouhaha. 

The beef started when reporter Jones wrote: "Berkeley has the issue of, well, being Berkeley, what some affectionately call 'funky,' such as the street scene on Telegraph Avenue, others might view as slightly off-putting." 

And Barbara Hillman, director of Berkeley's Visitor's Bureau, no stranger to Teley property owners and businessmen, with whom she frequently consults, may have innocently stumbled into a pile when she told reporter Jones, "we get people who say…I want to see People's Park…I'm like, why would they [want to go to People's Park]? 

"If you're [tourists] looking for strawberry fields and a nice place to have your lunch," Hillman said, "as a courtesy we need to let them know it's [People's Park] probably not what they're expecting." 

Hillman tells me Jones interviewed her "45 minutes for a two-minute story." Hillman questions the story's accuracy. 

Hillman told me: "People's Park is not a place for a family picnic…Codornices Park, or the Rose Garden is the place for that," wading deeper into the pile. 

"We do send people to Telegraph Avenue for the Free Speech Movement…great history—Berkeley's DNA—but that's not all of Berkeley." 

What some Teley businessmen want to know is whether the visitor's bureau is playing favorites among Berkeley neighborhoods. 

Hillman denies that charge, saying she tries to represent all of Berkeley, promoting Berkeley in 50,000 airports around the world with its visitor bureau publications, and assisting tourists when they breeze into town, after being lured, in part, by Hillman's efforts. 

The Bureau is visited by 30-40 guests daily, and Hillman reports, that Berkeley tourism is growing after being destroyed on 9-11, and in 1997 by a recession-economy. Most tourists, she says, are looking for a place to pee. 

Locals just pee on her new storefront across from Berkeley Rep., she says. 

Al Geyer, owner of Teley's famous 1969 head shop (and a museum of 60s atmosphere) was on the phone with Hillman in the wake of the Chron piece—saying, Hillman told me, "that the park had been cleaned up." 

Geyer confirmed to me Thursday that he had, indeed, "lobbied," on behalf of the park. 

When word reached Craig Becker at his Caffe Mediterraneum via Roland Peterson, spokesman for Teley property owners, that People's Park was not being promoted to tourists, he read reporter Jones' story with aroused interest. 

Becker has mounted, over the years, a one-man crusade, and now through a Teley property owners group he helms, to make Berkeley's People's Park "a clean and welcoming place." 

Interviewed on tourism in the park Thursday, regulars at Food-Not-Bombs' daily meal expressed concern over gawkers reducing park regulars to "animals in a zoo," snapping intrusive photos, especially old men sneaking shots of sexy young girls. 

Although park regulars understand the pervasiveness of voyeurism in our society, they resent being mauled visually. 

One free-mealer said that when he is forced into the park for the free-feed, he descends into a "dystopia" he'd rather experience in private. 

A homeless young woman with great flair elaborated a complete philosophical diorama of the life of the soul, which must be protected from the abuses of tourism. 

Only one park regular (me, actually) accepted People's Park tourism. This mad man suggested that "tourism tells us we are where others (tourists) want to be. "Hey," he enthused, 'if I'm where tourists want to be, I must be in the right place." 

Back at the Caffe Mediterraneum we got Roland Peterson's and Craig Becker's response to the Hillman-Chronicle article. This was all "off the record," but can be characterized as, we reserve the sole rights to criticize Berkeley's People's Park—everyone else, back-off. 

Becker and Peterson have repeatedly complained to the university about conditions in the park, claiming a victory of sorts when the university recently attempted to upgrade the park for residents of a newly constructed student dorm across the street from the park's drug-dealing West end. 

Reportedly filled for the fall, the new structure will open in August. 

But will student dorm residents—next-door to the park—picnic in their own park or head for the Rose Garden? 

Geyer and others have invited Hillman to bring her visiting bureau to the park 2:30 p.m. Monday. We wouldn't miss that for the world.