A Landmark of the 60's, People's Park Defies Transformation


BERKELEY, Calif. -- On days when the sun looks kindly on it, People's Park can seem like a quaint little town.

The people who live nowhere in particular picnic on the east end, on benches in a grove. A smattering of bodies flop on the uncombed lawn. Community gardeners tend their patches on the west end, and the few nearby drug addicts are camouflaged by shrubs, easily overlooked.

So it was the other day, when the sky was as bright as July, blurring the park's rough edges.

Volunteers rebuilding the Free Speech stage near the free-clothes box and others painting the finishing touches on a banner for the park's 30th anniversary celebration, to be held this Sunday, simply could not believe that anyone would want to change a thing about this vestige of the 60's protest movement, possibly the most famous 2.8 acres of scruffy grass in the world.

"One man was killed defending this park, and another was blinded," said Terri Compost, a member of the People's Park Community Advisory Board, as she watched the progress on the anniversary banner. "People have been defending the park from development as a haven, a kind of paradise for all kinds of people, for 30 years. It's amazing what some people are saying about it now. None of it is true."

But the fact is that a great many people avoid People's Park. In a sure sign of the widespread distaste for the place, even in a city that proudly retains its liberal reputation, a local columnist recently suggested that the park would make a better strip mall or parking garage. And on an afternoon made for worshiping the sun, University of California students, on a campus of 31,000 two blocks away, were strangely absent. So, too, were parents pushing strollers, school children on bikes and old people out for air.

No one denies the park's symbolic power. Born when a diverse group of residents and students decided in April 1969 to plant sod, flowers and playground equipment on an unused lot owned by the university, People's Park received its bloody christening a month later, when the university decided to take back its land in one of the most infamous domestic clashes of the Vietnam era.

So many different types of people protested the official over-reaction to the park -- 30,000 people (in a city of 100,000) marched to protest Gov. Ronald Reagan's order to send in 2,000 National Guard troops with rifles, hoses and tear gas -- that People's Park became a worldwide symbol of the power of community.

But that was then.

Since 1972, when activists tore down the chain-link fence the university had erected around it, People's Park has become the refuge for a cadre of fringe characters. Drug dealers and users, has-been hippies and would-be hippies, panhandlers on break and several societies of homeless people dug in their heels. Just about everyone else scattered to a more congenial park two blocks away, or to the cafes around the corner, or the campus plazas. In short, anywhere but here.

The city's Mayor, Shirley Dean, has heard the complaints.

"The official policy of the city," Mayor Dean said, "is that People's Park should be like any other park in the city -- that is, it should be a park where everyone can go and feel comfortable in and around it. And right now I don't think we have met that because there is a substantial number of people in the neighborhood who don't feel comfortable in and around the park.

Some neighbors have formed a group called Safe Streets Now, and they have threatened to sue the university."

The university still owns the land, but leases it to the city. Each time it has tried asserting a new plan for the space, it clashes with those who want the park to remain as is.

In 1991, the issue was volleyball courts. A protest against the courts turned violent when the police fired tear gas and wooden bullets at demonstrators, and merchants on nearby Telegraph Avenue had their windows smashed. (The volleyball courts came down in 1997, after constant vandalism.)

Two weeks ago, the university issued a quick denial to reports that its chancellor was considering converting the park to student housing, the very plan for the site 30 years ago.

But to many here, housing on the site is an idea whose time has come.

Kate Coleman, a journalist who helped tear down the fence to take over the park in 1972, said the community had become tired of the park as a haven for the criminal element.

"If you go there now," Ms. Coleman said, "you're getting a sanitized view because the police have been sweeping it. I walked through last night and there was a basketball game going on and the gardeners were out gardening and I thought, 'This is nice.' But the question becomes, Are you going to have the police occupying the park all the time? There is this nasty underbelly out there when the police are not there."

Two students bent with the weight of their knapsacks were asked, as they walked around the park, why they would not walk across it. Both women, who refused to give their full names because they were worried about "repercussions" from park denizens, said they simply did not like the park.

"You hear about people getting hassled," one of the women said.

The park's defenders say it is better than it has been in years. The police chased out the crack dealers, they say, and a lively group of cliques, from chess players to amateur basketball players to charities giving out free food to the indigent, make the park a community.

"It's like a little paradise," said Arthur Fonseca, who was helping to build the park's new stage and who said he moved to Berkeley from Portland, Ore., four years ago to be a part of the People's Park volunteers. "Right now, we're building a stage to last. It's going to be a beautiful place for all kinds of events."

The park promoters handed out hot-pink fliers that announced a long list of festivities for the anniversary celebration, including Wavy Gravy of Woodstock fame as one of the masters of ceremonies. Later they proudly hung their banner over the giant People's Park mural on the side of a nearby building. Along the busy avenue, some people stopped to watch, but others ignored them.

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