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It's still a battlefield

People's Park in Berkeley has long been a symbol of activism. Debating its future, some view it as sacred ground; others see it as a blight on the community.

December 04, 2006|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — 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.

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.

"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.

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, 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."

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