It's Not the Park, It's the People in It

Becky O'Malley
Friday May 04, 2018 - 01:30:00 PM

No need to bother with a whole new editorial this week, because it’s Groundhog Day All Over Again, merging clichés to save space.

This week, the target of opportunity is People’s Park—no, that’s wrong. It’s not People’s Park, it’s the Park’s People.

Self-righteous Berkeleyans have been falling all over themselves in available comment venues to tell the world how thrilled they are that Town and Gown plan to join forces to evict those sotted and smelly rogues from the prime piece of real estate just there for the taking to the south of the institution formerly known as Cal. That’s the school which has in recently years expropriated even the name of the town it’s in: Berkeley. 

Here, first, it’s time for the disclaimer. As a Berkeley town citizen, I serve on the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission, appointed by Mayor Jesse Arreguin and serving at his sole discretion. The tract in question happens to be a Berkeley City Landmark based on its history, but here I’m deliberately silent on how that could or should affect the announced development project. This is because my appointer and his city attorney suggested that I should not be able to vote on landmarking U.C.’s Campanile Way and its significant viewshed because I’d previously expressed an opinion on an earlier landmark application on a similar topic. 

I disagree, but that one I ducked by getting a substitute. I don’t need to do that on this topic according to legal advice I’ve received. 

My comments today are not on the site’s history, but on its current demographics and the politics which flow from them. Landmark status is beside the point. 

One more time: It’s not People’s Park, it’s the Park’s People.  

Simply put, there are usually a whole lotta funky dudes hanging out on the block bounded by Bowditch, Haste and Dwight. They drink alcohol, they sell, buy and consume other drugs both legal and illegal, some of them have surly dogs for whom they don’t always clean up, sometimes they sleep there, sometimes they punch or even stab each other. 

Gross, right? 

Many activities on the site are illegal from time to time. Many denizens stay within legal boundaries, but are obviously out of money or of their minds or both. 

Let’s just assume, arguendo, that the property was owned by someone other than the Big U. Would the City of Berkeley allow a private property owner to continue to tolerate illegal behavior? Especially if the private owner had a private army with the scope and power of the U.C. Police. Don’t think so. 

It’s well within the English-speaking tradition, at least dating back to the 17th century and probably before, that every town had its skid row. Online Free Dictionary: “skid row. A squalid district inhabited by derelicts and vagrants.” 

In San Francisco, that would be the Tenderloin. In downtown Oakland when I worked there it was 12th Street, but now that’s been largely Urban Renewed away. And in Berkeley, in the 40-some years I’ve been a South Side homeowner, our Skid Row has been People’s Park. 

This was not true in my first iteration here, in the late fifties. Then, the area in question was semi-seedy student rooming houses—my junior year room was in the attic of a brown shingle a block away on the corner of Channing and Telegraph. 

What changed? Primarily, while I was away in Ann Arbor in the 60s, my alma mater took a whole block away from private owners by eminent domain and tore down the houses. 

We will cast a legal veil over what happened after that, but let’s just say that today’s Skid Row occupancy here, though still known as People’s Park, is a wasteland of U.C.’s own devising, despite the best efforts of many volunteers in the intervening years to turn it into a green and pleasant land. 

Allowing the block to become Berkeley’s very own skid row is a well-known technique called Demolition by Neglect. The way this works, if property owners would like to re-develop a site but are prohibited from destroying what’s already there by tenant’s rights, historic preservation, zoning or other legal impediments, they just let existing improvements fall apart over time. Case closed. 

This is not to say that all the people currently hanging out at the Park are bad actors. Some of them are just the traditional down-and-out, now also findable in a park near you. What’s been unique about People’s Park is the tolerance by UC of easily observed lawbreaking of a type not allowed either by the City of Berkeley or by self-policed residents in other encampments of the unhoused which have sprung around town,  

You could call it land banking, I suppose. Fifty or so years down the road, U.C. still hopes to get the buildable site they so coveted back when. They’re crying poor—no place to build dorms, despite a series of costly construction boondoggles like the Memorial Stadium extravaganza (don’t say we didn’t warn you about that one!) and the fancy new swimming complex.  

Now, as then, the odor of civic collusion is in the air. Local officials “enthusiastically” support evicting the unsightly unwashed from their designated domain in favor of clean and cheerful students. In preparation for this, new laws are being contemplated for preventing vagrants from popping up elsewhere around Berkeley, but this just in—it won’t work.  

People’s Park might be gone, but the People will still be here, somewhere. Check out Willard (formerly Ho Chi Minh) Park as a likely new destination, or perhaps Civic Center (Provo) Park.  

Right now I’m opening the betting pool on whether or not the proposed housing development (sorry, “public-private partnership”) will actually make room for the undeserving poor as backers claim. I’ll take the hedge position myself.  

As I said last week, People have to Be somewhere, even those annoying People that Berkeley (in both senses of the name) wants to banish from the Park.