A Portrait of People’s Park

BERKELEY- It’s 7 a.m. in People’s Park and a woman blow-drying her socks in the public restroom is staging a revolution of her own.

“UC scum! Do you even know what this park means?” Deborah screams at no one in particular.

“Not again. Shut your mouth!” shouts a man walking by.

Deborah ignores him. Her revolution continues and echoes through the 2.8-acre park still covered in fog. A dozen sleeping bag-encased mendicants snooze through it. Nearby, a lone basketball player shoots lay-ups.

Thirty-seven years after its creation, People’s Park, an ordered chaos of shrubs, dumpsters and makeshift shelters, remains a symbol of Berkeley counterculture. Straddling the corner of Haste and Bowditch, new students venture by to view the park they’ve read about, but most prefer to stick to its outskirts or nearby Telegraph Avenue. The University of California at Berkeley owns the park, but the homeless inhabit it.

“I’ve never seen anyone just studying or hanging out at People’s Park,” says Armando Sanchez, a sophomore at UC Berkeley.

“It’s an eclectic mix of the past, present and sometimes future of Berkeley,” says Devin Woolridge, the site coordinator who has an office in the park. “There’s a lot in that (history),” he says and begins pruning trees.

He’s right.

By 8 a.m. the streets surrounding the park begin to bustle as students hurry past on their three-block walk to campus. Deborah’s screams have been replaced by the buzz of a leaf blower. David, one of a cluster of homeless men sleeping off the night under a grove of trees, smokes a hand-rolled cigarette and stares ahead at the now vacant basketball court. He isn’t trying to get anywhere. He is already there.

The only reminders of the park’s turbulent history are the vibrant murals on the bathroom’s outside walls and the bold signs declaring, “People’s Park, Power to the People!”

The UC Board of Regents bought the residential property in 1967 with unclear intentions. A year later, with the community houses leveled, a wasteland of muddy trash remained.

The community organized in the spring of 1969 to convert the empty lot into a garden oasis, a true “People’s Park.” They planted and hoed, but a month later the university took its land back and fenced it off.

The move stirred discontent and in less than a month, 3,000 protestors said no. The police came with tear gas and guns, and at the day’s end, one man was dead, 75 wounded and Governor Ronald Regan had declared a state of emergency. The National Guard occupied the park for 17 days, arresting hundreds of protestors and making household names out of that first clash on May 15, 1969 — Bloody Thursday– and the park.

“I remember when white people were up here fighting with the police. That was crazy. Military men holding guns, tents everywhere,” said Alando Williams who was raised in South Berkeley and used to sleep in the park until recently when it became too dangerous.

The university maintained control of the land until May 1972 when anti-war demonstrators tore down the fence and liberated the park. After years of negotiations, UC Berkeley agreed to let the city operate it as a park.

Irene Hegarty, the university’s director of community relations, worries more these days about syringes than riots, she says as she prunes one of the park’s geranium bushes. Eight hundred hypodermic needles were found in the park in the last year, she says, noting the exact figure because each one discovered must be turned over to the Environmental Health and Safety Department.

“Historically there is a lot of drug dealing in the park, partly because the vegetation is so high,” says Berkeley police officer Ed Galvan. “You can’t see through the park from one street to the other.”

On Wednesday, workers try to solve that problem. At 9 a.m. Jason Thurm, in a canary yellow hardhat and wrap-around sunglasses, says he is “trying to open up the foliage in the park for some visibility” as he chops off the limb of an apricot tree.

The gardens around him cover a 40-foot wide, block-long stretch and house 60-70 varieties of plant life. These range from fig trees to Monterey cypresses and the Mexican agave plant. The scent of blooming lilies and roses fill the air.

But neither the variety nor the grounds has tempted nearby resident Sara Lemme. “Sometimes there’s a lot of cursing and loud conflicts,” she says, explaining why she has never walked through the park.

Nearby, Elizabeth Balan sits peacefully on her futon mattress under one of the park’s giant redwoods. A 34-year old self-declared artist and gangster rapper, she has plans.

“As an attractive female who tends to walk around in scantily clad clothes, I’m sure that someone will pick me up today and get me drunk,” she says. “And that’s all I want today is to get drunk. I’m an artist and my needs are simple.”

For Balan, the park’s proximity to campus is a bonus. “I used to hate Cal students, but now I live fairly well off their left-over stuff,” she says, flapping the nylon fairy wings she wants to wear later. She often uses what she calls the “college kid hustle.”

She covers her large frame and scattered strands of gray hair in Cal paraphernalia and sits on campus at 3 a.m., crying and writing in a Cal notebook. She says she usually gets picked up and taken home to a warm meal, a shower and a good night’s sleep. She has to.

“The cops have started kicking people out of the park at night,” says Steve Childs, who works nearby at New Church, explaining the park’s 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. Still, he says, the park has the highest crime rate in Berkeley.

While that’s debatable, police say they have arrested 21 people in the last 30 days. They were charged with everything from probation or parole violations to drug possession, UC Police Department Lt. Jim West says. In the same month, police filed cards on another 42 incidents of “people who are doing what they shouldn’t be doing.”

It was partially the crime that propelled UC Berkeley administrators to suggest building a 200-bed dormitory in 1989 and volleyball courts in 1991. Both times the proposals met with protest. The volleyball courts went up but came down in 1997 after vandalism and disinterest had made them worthless. Controversies periodically spring up about student housing proposals but die quickly, and nowadays the homeless rule the park — most of the time.

By 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the homeless seem more compliant than rebellious. Balan drags her small futon to the edge of the park in deference to new regulations that prohibit any ground cover more than an inch thick. When she has to leave, The Hate Man who has been on the street saying, “I hate you” since 1976, offers to watch it.

The 69-year-old gained some notoriety in 1991 when a New York Times editor wrote about his early days on the paper’s rewrite desk with the Hate Man. Nowadays, he spends his day in the park, smoking – he keeps a stash of rolling tobacco for friends but prefers Virginia Slim menthols with the filters snipped off – and doing favors for friends like Balan.

“You better move,” someone shouts at Grimm, another one of the park’s inhabitants who is curled up with his girlfriend, under a pile of blankets. Faster than seems possible, they move to dry ground.

Jim, 52, sits nearby trimming his nails and deciding whether to read another section of the newspaper. He doesn’t want his last name used, he says and explains, “I don’t think you’re an identity theft person, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful.”

Although the chill has passed and the sky shines ocean-blue, no children shoot down the multi-colored slide or vie for the one available swing. In eight hours, few people other than the homeless use the park, but “People’s Park News” newsletter promises a World Cultural Art & Music Festival on September 16, and describes chess matches held this past summer. Any midday there is a sense the future is trying to connect to the past. Two young men toss a football and a couple of boys grab a basketball from the shack-like office and start a pick-up game.

As they play, Christopher Schuk sits at a wooden picnic table pondering his next chess move. He says he regularly spends two hours a day in the park because he has nowhere else to go. Margarito, an unemployed 55-year-old Mexican immigrant frequents the park for similar reasons. For him it’s a place of friendly faces and free food.

“These people bring things in cars and vans. Bread, fruit,” he says, referring to the organizations and residents who donate food and put the offerings on the stage.

Earlier in the day, the stage is one homeless man’s bed. “I’m sorry” he says explaining why he doesn’t want to be interviewed. “I am taking a nap. I am busy now.”

At 2 p.m., plump sleeping bags looking like a mass of oversized caterpillars still cover the ground as Henry Begaye watches the interplay between bicycled policeman and a group of men hovering nearby. It’s kind of peaceful,” he says enjoying a park he has returned to off and on for 42 years. “It looks like they’re gonna arrest that guy,” he says, still focused on the scene in front of him.

A car wheels by and drops off a white plastic kitchen bag full of used clothes. Paul Garcia, from Texas and Mexico, gets to it first.

“See this?” Garcia says, holding up a pink toy car. “Someone left it here. I’m giving it to a kid. There are kids living in here. Sometimes whole families.”

Williams who has seen this “big ole field” rise over the years, tugs his black wool cap lower over his ears and chuckles. He sits next to Carlos Evans, a man whose mission today is to find a pair of pants for a lady friend that doesn’t have any.

“See this is why we are here,” Williams says. Here you will never go hungry. Never without clothes. Never without friends.”