The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

History and housing clash in Berkeley in a fight over People’s Park

A liberal city, defined by a prestigious university and a housing crisis, tries to find a middle ground in a place molded by protest

People’s Park in Berkeley, a historic landmark of political activism and a safe space for homeless people, is also the property of the University of California. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
10 min

BERKELEY, Calif. — So will it be history or housing in this famously liberal city, which today is long on the former and short on the latter?

The question will determine the fate of People’s Park, the seminal hippie hangout and staging ground for the-world-is-watching political demonstrations of decades ago.

Hippies placed flowers into the rifle barrels of National Guard soldiers here. The free-speech movement was nurtured by its politically fertile grounds, and certainly much has been said here over the decades about the Arab-Israeli conflict, U.S. colonialism and wars, race and class and, most recently, the political power of the University of California system.

The park is now primarily a homeless camp, but as it has been since its counterculture founding, it is also highly contested.

For years, UC Berkeley has wanted to build a large apartment building in the roughly one-square block park that would accommodate about 1,100 students and 125 of the city’s homeless residents.

The wealthy neighborhood and its allies in other parts of this cramped city have said no, a refrain that first rang out in the park more than a half-century ago when it was shouted in opposition to the Vietnam War.

Opponents filed a lawsuit last year to stop the project, and in late February, a state appeals court justice in San Francisco agreed that it should not go forward. The university has pledged to take the case to the state Supreme Court.

Everyone is angry. Everyone has thoughts.

All are spoken, some profanely.

It’s Berkeley.

“A few wealthy Berkeley homeowners should not be able to block desperately needed student housing for years and even decades,” the state’s liberal governor, Gavin Newsom (D), said in a statement following the most recent court ruling.

But it is not a simple case of Bay Area not-in-my-backyardism — which, to be sure, is rampant in the region. At least not to the groups fighting the project or even to some of those living in the park, which sits at the southern edge of the UC Berkeley campus in one of the city’s most thickly developed neighborhoods.

“This place goes beyond Berkeley, beyond California — it is our nation’s history,” said Harvey Smith, a founder of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, a plaintiff in the suit opposing the project.

The group formed a few years ago and includes members like Smith who live beyond the park’s immediate orbit. Smith said the group’s first task was to secure a spot for the park on the National Register of Historic Places, which the group did successfully last year.

As landmarks from that hazy era go, Woodstock and Kent State University also appear in the register. But Smith, who graduated from UC Berkeley and worked in its School of Public Health as a graduate student, said People’s Park is different.

“Those places qualify because of events that happened there,” said Smith, who is 77 and retired from the nonprofit world. “But People’s Park is a living, ongoing monument to that history.”

Like most debates in Berkeley, whether about the place itself or the world at large, there are many voices and many reminders that this or that aspect of what’s at stake is most important or misunderstood.

But at the physical center of the fight is the park itself, just under three uneven acres carved up by the thick boughs of chopped-down trees, wood-chip hillocks and homeless tents, all imbued with the heavy sense that this is not the place for a sunny lunch break or a twilight pinot noir.

The university, which owns the land, cut down dozens of trees last year when a brief window opened for the project to move ahead (a memorial was later held in the trees’ honor). Over time, the park has been fenced and unfenced, cleared by force, and both policed heavily and ignored.

To those fighting the university, the park has been intentionally neglected to ease the way for a change there.

“This is a university that runs two national nuclear laboratories,” Smith said, “and you just can’t tell me they can’t manage a 2.8-acre park.”

In the late 1960s, the university took the land through eminent domain, clearing houses already there to make way for its own construction projects. Those never materialized. The nascent counterculture movement stepped in and, essentially, turned the place into a stage for the rising, sometimes radical politics of the left that flourished in the East Bay and within its most prestigious university.

Many of the demonstrations have been peaceful. But others have featured clouds of tear gas, flung rocks and bottles, and shotgun blasts. One death and several permanent injuries are attributed to police-protester clashes at the park.

“It’s the only place where people really have a chance to be themselves,” said Nick Alexander, a 36-year-old UC Berkeley graduate who has lived in the park during some hard times in his life. “And it can be obnoxious, to be honest.”

Alexander was born in Oklahoma and raised in the foster care system, an experience that bounced him among several states. He moved west from Indiana when he was 18, enrolled in community college, and later transferred to UC Berkeley.

His first visit to People’s Park involved an LSD trip. He wasn’t the first to experience the park in that hallucinatory way, nor the last.

Since graduation, Alexander has devoted much of his time to preserving the park as a place where people can come for sanctuary and food, which he dishes out in big meaty helpings from a makeshift kitchen he has constructed there from scraps of plywood.

He said he has served 20,000 meals from the kitchen, which sits in the shadow of a tree-fort crow’s nest perched between boughs of a nearby redwood. Above his kitchen flies the flag of the Rebel Alliance, the underdog resistance to the Galactic Empire in the “Star Wars” movies.

Of the university’s $312 million housing proposal, Alexander says, “I like it and I don’t like it at the same time.” What he wants for the park is a community center, a place where the city’s homeless can clean up and eat and rest.

“We’re a part of this history, this legacy, and we’re fighting now against the sanitization of Berkeley,” Alexander said. “A community center alone would change the character of this place. That alone would honor its history.”

There are about 1,000 homeless residents in Berkeley, a city that Alexander and others say has dined out for too long on a reputation as an accepting, liberal haven. It is a rich place now, as are many places that ring the San Francisco Bay.

But it is very hard to build here — even when you are the flagship university of the $44 billion-a-year UC system, which is often seen as its own kingdom within the Republic of California.

Several of its 10 campuses are facing severe housing shortages, from Davis near Sacramento to Santa Barbara on the southern coast. UC Berkeley is right there with them.

Last year, the school said it would have to deny enrollment to 5,000 first-year and transfer students because it could not meet a set of court-ordered student housing requirements.

What happened when the school told the state it could not meet the rules? The state changed the rules. The university — and, in a nod to equity, the rest of the state’s public universities — was given 18 months to complete any court-ordered environmental review of new student housing locations before mandatory enrollment and admissions freezes would kick in.

“This is all about power, the university’s and the government’s,” said one of the park’s homeless residents, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing police reprisals. “That’s all it is.”

The city of Berkeley adopted a highly ambitious housing plan two years ago that calls for the construction of 9,000 homes by 2031.

Where those homes will rise when even building on a patch of neglected land in the middle of a residential neighborhood calls for a state Supreme Court opinion is anyone’s guess.

The legal debate pivots on CEQA, an acronym that sends a chill down the spine of every California builder. See-kwa, as the acronym is spoken in everyday vernacular here, is seen by many across the state’s political spectrum as a multi-legged monster that chokes out many of California’s best-laid housing, water conservation and transportation plans.

Almost as old as People’s Park itself, the California Environmental Quality Act was intended to require a rigorous review of nearly aspect of nearly every proposed construction project. That goal seemed just fine before the state’s homeless population swelled to 170,000 people, a third of the nation’s total.

Now CEQA has become a target. In a state government that rarely finds a regulation it doesn’t love, California political leaders agree that this one is in dire need of repair.

And the People’s Park case, among much of the other history it has raised, highlighted CEQA’s broad mandate to obstruct yet again.

In his opinion, Justice Gordon B. Burns said the university had failed to adequately consider other sites for the project, which CEQA requires. Opponents argue that there are many other sites — perhaps more than a dozen — more suitable in the city for large-scale student housing.

But the justice added that the university also did not take into account noise from “loud student parties” in picking the site, a line that for CEQA haters said all there needed to be said about a metastasizing regulation.

So what’s the future of this scruffy patch of history, captured for today’s generations mostly in black-and-white photos of hippies squaring off against helmeted National Guard troops?

Neither side seems ready to back down.

Smith, founder of the park advocacy group, wants the park to be, well, a park like the many well-tended others in Berkeley. Alexander, who runs the park’s kitchen, wants a community center. The university wants housing, which it says is crucial to preserving enrollment numbers in the state’s politically fortified citadel of higher education.

There are about 15 tents in the park regularly, and in one of them lives Malik bin-Saud. He is 48 years old and has lived in the park off and on for all but 18 of them.

He’s planning to remain where he is, the kind of sentiment that has animated many happenings at the park.

“I’m not going to leave this community hanging,” Saud said. “I’m not going to leave here without doing something about it.”

Regardless of the outcome, an epitaph of sorts for People’s Park.