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It’s still a battlefield

Times Staff Writer

Once an international symbol of political activism, Berkeley’s People’s Park is suffering an identity crisis.

Homeless flock to the park for free food and clothing. But residence counselors in nearby University of California dorms warn students to stay away. Cleanup crews in the university-owned park regularly remove needles, crack vials and other drug paraphernalia from the grounds.

In other places, a straightforward park rehab might seem in order. But that’s not so clear here.

Some still view the 2.8-acre park south of the UC Berkeley campus as sacred ground that should not be touched. Almost everything in the park carries a political history and message. The trees are named after deceased activists, and the grape arbor is made from the wood of a volleyball court the university installed on the property in 1991, sparking 12 days of rioting.

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Others, meanwhile, have come to see the park as a blight on the community and an insult to the high ideals of brotherhood and community that marked its origins.

The debate over the park’s future, which is up for discussion by a university-appointed advisory board scheduled to meet today in a Berkeley church, divides even those who marched for the park’s creation nearly four decades ago.

“Over time, people have come to realize that the park has not become what they hoped it would be,” said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, who joined the first demonstrations for the park in 1969 and who still keeps a piece of souvenir asphalt that protesters ripped from a parking lot the university later built on the property.

“I love the idea of having some kind of memorial recognition there,” Bates said.

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“But right now, it is not a place that a lot of people are comfortable going to.”

Police say the partly wooded park has become a drug haven, and they want to clear vegetation and level grassy berms to improve visibility. Nearby residents and businesses complain about crime and the park’s large homeless population.

“The park is for people who are on drugs or are insane. The rest of us are asked to be endlessly tolerant,” said Doris Moskowitz, owner of Moe’s Bookstore on nearby Telegraph Avenue.

But after years of frequently violent battles over the property, some activists remain suspicious of the university’s motives regarding the park. The reasons for the proposed changes, they say, are nearly the same as they were when the university acquired the property in 1967, citing “hippie concentration and rising crime.”

On a sunny afternoon earlier this week, 43-year-old Terri Compost tended several gardens she maintains on the grounds and distributed fliers proclaiming “No Bulldozers in the Park.”

Compost, who changed her name to reflect her passion for organic gardening, contends that police and homeowner claims about the park are exaggerated.

“I really think the crime thing in the park is way over-hyped. A lot of the crimes are just open containers or smoking a joint,” said the Los Angeles native, wearing a long peasant skirt and sitting on a bench next to the “John Lennon Memorial Plum Tree” she planted some years earlier.

Not far away, near the park’s bandstand and speakers’ platform, workers from the Food Not Bombs peace collective served free vegan food -- brown rice, lentils, tofu and bread with persimmons -- to a long line of homeless park denizens. One of them, toothless and wearing several layers of dress shirts, advised a visitor to “eat more raw food” if he wanted to lose weight.

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Another, 38-year-old Jon Reed, an unemployed health worker, said he comes to the park several times a week for the food and other times for the concerts and other activities. “I really think the people of Berkeley have a right to adverse possession,” he said, citing the principle from English common law that allows those who continuously and openly occupy property belonging to someone else to eventually claim it as their own.

Usually, from 50 to 100 homeless people hang out in the park during the day, leaving to find shelter elsewhere when the park closes at 10 p.m.

To Charles Gary, a Berkeley drug counselor and longtime park activist, the main issue is economic, tied to rising Bay Area housing prices. “The university is using neighbors and their inflated property values as a way to take the park and reconfigure it into a gated community’s vision of security,” Gary said.

Gary describes his fellow park activists, who maintain a nonprofit website at www.peoplespark.org, as “a nebulous community group of people who have kept People’s Park in their hearts, working to make sure that the university doesn’t take history and turn it into their vision of gentrification.”

Irene Hegarty, director of community relations at UC Berkeley, said the university has committed $100,000 to study ways to reshape the park to better serve the public. Hegarty said the university has no immediate intent to bring bulldozers into the park, though it does plan to continue to thin vegetation to provide better sight lines for patrolling university and city police.

“It’s so dense in there that the beat cops have a hard time seeing into the park,” Berkeley police spokesman Ed Galvan said. “It’s time for a change. This is not the 1960s anymore. It’s time for this to be reworked -- update the lighting and knock down the vegetation.” In the last six months, Galvan said, police have made 56 drug arrests in or near People’s Park.

Some of those involved in the creation of People’s Park in the late 1960s and in the battles that followed agree that the park today is a depressing site.

“It’s now become this somewhat forlorn urban park,” said Dan Siegal, an Oakland attorney who was a UC Berkeley student leader when the park was created.

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People’s Park began as a vacant lot that students and activists turned into a flower garden, and food-sharing and free-speech zone.

Before dawn on May 15, 1969, several hundred California Highway Patrol and Berkeley police officers cleared an eight-block area surrounding the park and began building a cyclone fence and removing the plants and playground equipment installed by the park’s founders.

It was Siegal’s exhortation of “Let’s Take the Park!” in front of 3,000 students on the Berkeley campus later that day that led to a march down Telegraph Avenue to the park site and a bloody confrontation with police and Alameda County sheriff’s deputies. One student was killed, another was blinded and more than 100 demonstrators were injured.

What’s missing now, Siegal said, is historical context. At the time that People’s Park was created, Berkeley students had been in conflict with the university administration since the Free Speech Movement of 1964. Protests against the Vietnam War were escalating and the countercultural movement that began in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district was at its height. Ronald Reagan was governor.

Control of People’s Park was just one of several issues pitting radical students against the university.

After years of skirmishes, including riots in 1972, 1979 and 1991, the university finally abandoned its long-held plans to convert the land to student housing or campus offices. Although smaller battles continue today over crime, a controversial free-clothing box recently removed by the university and the distribution of free food by churches and charity groups, the park is no longer an issue that concerns students.

Only a few students use the space, playing pickup basketball and throwing Frisbees on the open grass.

“It is a place that no longer reflects the will for independence of the campus community,” Siegal said. “I think today if the university turned off its Wi-Fi [wireless Internet access], they’d get bigger demonstrations than they would for People’s Park.”

For “Samatman,” a resident mystic and park regular, the whole issue of ownership is illusory. “The truth is that nobody really owns anything,” he said.

Hunched over a paper plate heaped with Food Not Bombs lentils and brown rice, Samatman said he was “ageless.” Chewing his food methodically, he described People’s Park as an “island of sharing in a sea of separation.”

As for the park’s crime problems, he just shrugged.

“Like everything else, it is a product of the wider society in which it is located. Humanity as a whole is sick.”

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rone.tempest@latimes.com


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