Berkeley grapples with contentious plan to build dorms in People’s Park

Landmark decision addresses area’s housing crisis

On the final day of September, the UC Board of Regents voted to build student dorms near one of its biggest campuses.

With the exorbitant cost of housing in California, the decision to finance new places to live for 1,100 Berkeley undergraduates might seem an obvious, even essential, choice.

But the project’s location has made it highly contentious: Officials plan to build in People’s Park, one of the most storied plots of land in the Bay Area.

The story of People’s Park began in 1967, with a few dozen houses three blocks south of the main entrance to Berkeley’s campus.

University officials used eminent domain to buy the properties and raze them, saying they needed the land for dorms. Yet many believed that destroying the houses was a ruse.

Berkeley had become the center of the nation’s counterculture movement, home to huge protests over the Free Speech Movement and against the Vietnam War. And thousands of those left-leaning activists had settled on the affordable south side of campus, exactly where officials were ousting residents.

So when construction of the dorms stalled, Berkeley residents decided to reclaim the dirt lot where the houses had once stood.

In the spring of 1969, hundreds of people showed up to add sod, flowers and trees. Others served meals and played music. The project, rooted in a spirit of optimism and anti-authoritarianism, began to be called “People’s Park.”

But it didn’t last. On May 15, 1969, the university dispatched hundreds of police officers to bulldoze the park, which was on campus property. That ignited a conflict with protesters that came to be known as Bloody Thursday, in which law enforcement killed one man and injured more than 100.

To try to quell further rebellion, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan sent in 3,000 National Guard troops, who arrived with tanks and trucks. During the two weeks they stayed in Berkeley, the National Guard even dropped tear gas over the Student Union from a helicopter.

“The whole city felt under siege, and it really felt like this was just a manifestation of the conflict between the ’60s generation and the conservative pro-war movement,” said Frances Dinkelspiel, who has written extensively about the park for the news outlet Berkeleyside. (She noted that Reagan later ran for president in part on his record of controlling the protests at Berkeley.)

The park became a symbol of Berkeley’s counterculture movement and the sacrifices made in its honor. It has remained mostly unchanged for decades.

“Imagine when you’re 19 and 20, whatever happens in your life at that time is so significant and you feel it very deeply. The people who are involved in People’s Park, that’s still how they feel,” Dinkelspiel said.

These days, most UC Berkeley students don’t enter the park, and campus officials warn them about crime there. But university leaders have struggled for years to secure support to use the land in a different way — until now.

The $312 million project that the University of California regents approved last month will transform People’s Park, turning half of the land into housing for both students and unhoused people from the community.

The other half of the park will remain open space and will include a section honoring its history.

Dinkelspiel said she thinks the landmark decision to remake the park came about because of the determination of UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, as well as the housing crisis in the Bay Area, easily visible in the rows of tents that have popped up around Berkeley.

UC Berkeley houses 23% of its students, the lowest in the UC system. This fall, 5,000 students were turned away from student housing, a growing problem that has most likely eroded resistance to changing People’s Park.

“The current student body, they don’t know anything about the history,” Dinkelspiel said. “The concerns of students are, ‘How can I afford to live in Berkeley, this very expensive place?’ They’re not thinking about the Free Speech Movement and the Vietnam War.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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