What the University of California Doesn't Want You to Know About People's Park

Carol Denney
Monday October 15, 2018 - 06:00:00 PM

People's Park is a landmark. The university doesn't mention it, but it became a city landmark in 1984 "for its historic and cultural importance to the City of Berkeley." The landmark designation is not necessarily protective, but it should be instructive to a community being carefully trained to ignore its own significant moments in history. The chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission behind the landmarking was a Republican who owned a local car repair shop, named Laurie Bright. 

Creative autonomy was part of southside culture. Even the City of Berkeley' s official Southside Plan acknowledges this, noting the revolt over increasing traffic which "led to the placement of street barriers to protect adjoining neighborhoods from the Southside and its traffic" and the response to the "redesigned Telegraph Avenue’s streetscape, creating wider sidewalks" which "soon filled with street artists. These independent artisans represent a creative autonomy that is a defining element of the Southside’s commercial district today."[1] 

The university has nine other sites on which to build housing, including a ten acre site at Smyth-Fernwald just further up Dwight Way, but only one, People's Park, that comes with a legal obligation to host any applications for amplified monthly concerts and events. A court decision requires this use by court order in a case represented by civil rights attorney Osha Neumann, who argued in 1987 that "a park is a 'quintessential public forum' for assembling together and the expression of opinion, where First Amendment rights have their broadest extension." 

The block now know as People's Park was acquired by a fraudulent use of eminent domain. The public record says it all. University officials, according to their meeting minutes, were terrified of what was, according to W. J. Rorabaugh in his book Berkeley at War, Telegraph in 1964, an area near the campus that "was cosmopolitan, artistically aware, politically diverse, and open to new ideas.” But after its acquisition the system-wide regents evaluated the university plans, which alternated between sports courts, office space, and (ironically) housing, and didn't vote UC Berkeley any funds to develop the bulldozed block. It was not a priority, according to the regents' inaction, a crucial element in the use of eminent domain. Under Cal Code Civ Proc § 1245.220, eminent domain requires that government agency "must adopt a formal resolution, also known as resolution of necessity to acquire the property before commencing an eminent domain proceeding in court[i]" which "must find (1) that the project for which the property is to be acquired is necessary; (2) that the property is necessary for the public project; (3) that the project is located in such a manner as to offer the greatest public benefit with the least private detriment." The muddy, rebar-filled lot left behind for years after bulldozing the community housing was an insult to southside's community. The land sat empty, and one day in spring community members, including Michael Delacour, built a park. 

People's Park has cost lives - and changed lives. It built at least one political career along the way as well; Ronald Reagan as the Governor of California used the anti-war movement as a contrast platform for his national ambitions. But it cost James Rector his life, Alan Blanchard his sight, and played a role in more deaths over the years if you're willing to count Rosebud DeNovo, who broke into the Chancellor's mansion as a protest and was shot in the back in 1992. For some of us it will always be the backdrop against which former Ashkenaz owner David Nadel lost his life to a gun. But for many people the park is the first place they ever built something together with others and watched a project move from an idea to fruition, whether it was a shingled freebox, a garden trellis, or a mural. "User development" remains the park's guiding principle, as much as the university attempts to obscure the fact. 

All of our parks, not just People's Park, have evidence of homelessness and poverty. And we don't tear down our overpasses when a tent shows up underneath it. We can respect our parks and landmarks and demand that the university do its part to house its students, something the university has not only historically neglected, it is something the university of California was originally forbidden by law to do: 

“Dormitories were suspected by midnineteenth-century educators and moralists of being incubators of student disorder.” (Stadtman, 1967: 157) 

This neglect can be easily addressed without abusing the surrounding city, or its parks and treasured cultural wealth. 



[1] City of Berkeley Southside Plan