A brief history of People’s Park from 1969 to the present

Welcome to People’s Park. Admission, free. Enter at own risk. Positively no refunds.


People’s Park. When something becomes heavily symbolic and iconic, it can be difficult to separate the myth from reality. People’s Park is like that. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. One thing’s for sure. People’s Park is embedded in Berkeley’s history and lore. And it exerted a powerful effect in transforming Berkeley into the town it became. As sort of a mecca for ’60s-style radical/liberal politics and the hippie counterculture. The People’s Republic of Berkeley, and all that.

Created in 1969 it would forever be symbolic of that whole period and all it represented. Originally it was a vacant lot owned by the University of California. UC Berkeley. But, spurred on by the burgeoning wave of hippie idealism and revolutionary fervor that was sweeping the Bay Area at the time (the “Woodstock Nation” was just beginning to flex it’s muscle) The People decided to liberate The Land from The Man. They ripped out the asphalt, planted a bunch of trees and plants. And declared that People’s Park had been born. “Let a thousand Parks bloom!”

Naturally, the University balked at the idea of ceding this very valuable piece of property to a bunch of rabble-rousing hippies. But guess what? The hippies had no intention of giving it back. Historically, the times were exactly ripe for a confrontation between the counterculture and the mainstream culture. The hippies versus the straights. The “Generation Gap.” All that.

The National Guard, guarding the trees from the goddamn hippies.
Ronald Reagan, in his campaign for governor of California, had made “cleaning up the dirty hippies in Berkeley and forcing them to take a bath” (that line always got huge cheers at his campaign rallies) a key plank in his platform. And after getting elected he made good on his promise. He sent in the National Guard to forcibly reclaim the land. Telegraph Avenue was blanketed with tear gas. During the course of what became known as the People’s Park Riots, the police opened fire on the rock-throwing demonstrators, injuring many, blinding one and killing one, James Rector, a UC student who was watching the melee from the roof of the building next-door to Fred’s Market, becoming the enduring martyr of the movement.
People’s Park instantly became a cause celeb among the counterculture. John Lennon urged the People’s Park demonstrators to “man the barricades with flowers” during his Bed-In for Peace media campaign. Pure grooviness. A benefit concert for People’s Park featured the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller and Creedence Clearwater Revival (not a bad line-up for 3 bucks — 1970 prices). Meanwhile, the famous radical activist Tom Hayden (later to become Mr. Jane Fonda) was holed up in a bunker somewhere, writing the People’s Park Liberation Manifesto, and trying to enlist the Black Panthers as sort of a guerilla army to defend the hippies and shoot down the cop helicopters that were hovering over the Park. This was war!! To which Black Panther leader David Hilliard famously replied: “That’s just like you, Tom, to get a nigger to pull the trigger.”
In the face of massive support from the Berkeley community, the University backed down. And for the next couple of decades People’s Park would be wholly operated and maintained by the People’s Park activists. And in the process it became a symbol of The People taking back the country from the evil corporations. Capitalist Pigs and all that. “Right on!”
Periodically, the University would make overtures to reclaim the Park, only to be met by fierce opposition from the Berkeley political activists. So it was kind of a Cold War stand-off. Eventually, the University conceded defeat (seemingly, though trusted by nobody) and agreed to maintain People’s Park as a park. They built bathrooms and basketball courts and over-saw the Park maintenance.
And how did it all end? Today, People’s Park is sort of a homeless squat campsite. At any given moment there will be a 100 to 200 homeless people basically living in the Park. They set up their campsites during the day. And move out at the 10 o’clock curfew to sleep on neighboring sidewalks and doorways.
Most of the conflicts with the police nowadays involve relatively mundane issues. The cops will give the homeless tickets if they “leave their stuff unattended” or amass too much stuff (you’re allowed to have “as much stuff as you can carry” according to current laws). The cops basically prune the herd to prevent the homeless from setting up permanent living structures in the Park. Which we’d do if left to our own devices. And the cops are constantly called in to deal with the endless fights that erupt between the drunk and drugged-out and mentally-ill that are always a part of the “homeless community” (so-called). So it’s a little bit of a bring-down from the heroic conflicts with The Man back in People’s Park’s glory days.
The white rabit of People’s Park.
It’s hard to say what Berkeley thinks of People’s Park today. I’m sure many of today’s UC students consider it an eye-sore. A mecca of crime and drugs and weird bums. A place they’re afraid to go in. “They should build student housing.” Most of today’s students were born in the 1990s. And probably half of them are recent immigrants who’s families have only been in America for a decade or two. So you wonder how much understanding or affinity they have for “Berkeley in the ’60s” and all that represents.
Meanwhile, the University is itching — as always — to get all the “bums” out of the Park and develop it into something more lucrative (housing, shops, etc.). Probably playing a waiting game. Figuring eventually all the political activists will grow old and die. And they’ll be able to re-claim the Park. Bull-doze the place. And put up a commemorative plaque honoring it’s legendary history. Teach a course about it as part of the curriculum, Berkeley-101.
And, as ever, life in People’s Park remains a surreal experience. Yesterday I was walking across the Park. There was a bunch of tweakers hanging out on the lawn. Suddenly one of them caught on fire. Another of the tweakers grabbed the flaming tweaker and rolled him across the lawn. Successfully extinguishing the fire. No harm no foul. They went on with their business. And I trotted over to Hate Camp to hang out with Hate Man and the boys. You have many such moments hanging in People’s Park. Sort of “Did I just see what I think I just saw” moments. People’s Park.
But ya’ know? It’ still a beautiful park. Full of green grass and green plants and blue skies. In the middle of a fairly harsh urban setting. Full of mostly gray concrete. So I’m damn glad it’s still there. 45 years later. People’s Park. “Let a thousand parks bloom.”

15 thoughts on “A brief history of People’s Park from 1969 to the present

  1. Very good writing as usual. I have a important comment to make which is off the subject. You can hate me for doing this. It is important to you too I would think. I have been reading some very good psychology book. The author won a Nobel prize in 2002 in economics. The main point is that there is a memory self and experiencing self.There are scientific tests to test for this. So you could have a very good experience but if the last part of it is unpleasant then the whole thing would seem unpleasant. We remember things differently then we actually experience them.

    1. I certainly agree with that. One of my most vivid memories of my senior year of high school was driving around getting stoned with my friends. And this song “At 17” — this maudlin ballad — would come on the radio. In my memory it was sort of the soundtrack to my senior year. . . . So I was surprised when I looked the song up a couple years ago and realized it hadnt been released until a year dafter I graduated.

      1. That book is called thinking, fast and slow by Kahneman . He won a Nobel prize in economics although the book is mostly psychology. It’s slightly different than what you’re saying Ace .We are the prisoners of the memory self . the experiencing self might have a good time but if it ends badly then the memory self makes it into something bad. We are prisoners of the memory self. It is a cognitive weird thing
        Look on Wikipedia for the pale blue dot. Amazing picture of earth from 3 1/2 billion miles away.

      2. I guess if, say, someone is playing a great basketball game. But then on the last play they screw up and blow the game, I’d imagine that would sour their memory of the experience. Even if the previous 41 minutes of the game were a wonderful experience. The last minute would be like the proverbial turd-on-the-cake as far as their memory of the experience.

  2. Thank you for this article. I just watched “Berkeley in the 60’s” ( a great documentary
    On netflix), & was amazed & moved by what really went down. A native of Berkeley, with hippie parents, who actually met hitch hiking, & lived in haight ash bury, I always thought I was pretty familiar with the history of that time period.
    I was completely blown away by the massive demonstrations by students at sproul hall, all the revolution and advocating for rights of freedom to live, think, and be different, yet equal. Reagan calling in the army, for control, culminating in tear gas, and violence.
    Such a movement for change, deserves to have a monument to the times, and what was accomplished so many years ago.
    I hope people’s park continues to be a public place that is regulated as necessary, to stand the test of time. Symbolic of our history. Where we’ve been, and where we are going in the future.
    That’s what the students & people who came together to turn it from concrete and rock into something green, living, & thriving, wanted.
    A plaque that reads “here once stood” could never convey that, or uphold the values and history that created it.

    1. Very well put, Lauren. It was a unique moment in history, and a unique convergence of factors, that led to the creation of People’s Park. And it’s a minor miracle that it’s still standing today. People’s Park forever!

  3. I’ve always thought that the University of California could have made a beautiful end-run around the generations of People’s Hobo-Jungle — I mean, PARK — activists, by ceding the land to the Ohlones Indians. No Berkeley Leftist would DARE to oppose them taking over the site, and it would have been a nice write-off for UC. If they’d done so in the last twenty years, no doubt the Ohlones would have turned the “urban rancheria” into a CASINO, which would have been a most delicious irony.

  4. Hey Ace, correction … James Rector, was watching the melee from the roof of Telegraph Repertory Cinema which was a few buildings South of Dwight on Telegraph

    1. Thanks. Have never been able to confirm that one. Is that the building that is now Freds Market? I used to go to that cinema in the Seventies. See weird artsy foreign films with subtitles. The place was more like a funky livingroom than a theater.

      1. Actually, even those are two separate buildings at the bottoms, they all share a common roof. Not to get too nit-picky.

  5. Yep, Rector and Blanchard got shot on the roof above the “Fred’s Market” location. And now, after 35+ years, Fred’s Market is gone, too.

    Coupla’ nittypicky notes:

    The park site wasn’t really “originally” an empty lot acquired by U.C. It was houses and yards, just like the rest of the neighborhood. Using the powers of “eminent domain” they made everyone move out and demolished all the homes… leaving it like that for something like a year and half, before the community decided on a better idea.

    At one point, the U.C. offered to sell the park to the City, for the legally token amount of $1. The City declined, not wanting to take on the burdens of maintenance, insurance, etc.

    1. Thanks for the clarification. By “originally” I just meant that’s what it was before it became a park. If I REALLY wanted to be nit-picky, I could say it also wasn’t “originally” houses and yards. I’m sure originally it was just woods and trees before the early settlers started building houses and making towns.

      1. Of course the vacant lot — which was used to park cars before the Park was formed — was the genesis for the classic People’s Park line: “Take a parking lot and put up a paradise.”

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