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History vs. Affordable Housing: The Protests at Berkley's People's Park

The scene is set. Amidst a bustling college is an abandoned parking lot, the perfect plot of land set aside for dorms—only, there are no dorms in sight, and quite a lot of people. Thousands are now gathered to protest the recent fencing of the park, where once were human grown plants, where once was bare concrete. Police encircle the group and it turns to a fight.


One student dead.


One hundred and twenty-eight injured.


These are the facts of the day known as Bloody Thursday, in the place known as People’s Park, where history seems about to repeat itself…

Illustrated by Lily Jiang


By Lucy Yao, Faith Qiao, Ananya Biswas

 

People’s Park was initially imagined as any typical college dorm: homes for those living in Berkeley. In 1956, however, when UC Berkeley finally made up the plans for what would become People’s Park, they had no money.


In 1968, they purchased the land through eminent domain and began bulldozing the neighborhood, only to promptly run out of money to continue the project—leaving the area a desolate mixture of rubble. For the 14 months leading up to April 13 of 1969, the former neighborhood remained that way until a pair of lovers, Wendy Schlesinger and Michael Delacour, decided that their favorite romantic rendezvous hideout would be the perfect site for a community park. They presented the plan to a group of local merchants and residents, and received approval from them—but not from UC Berkeley.


“We wanted a free speech area that wasn't really controlled like Sproul Plaza was. It was another place to organize, another place to have a rally. The park was secondary.” Michael Delacour said.

Just a week later on April 20, after an article was published in the Berkeley newspaper, over a hundred people gathered at the site that would become People’s Park to transform the desolate pile of rubble into a community park. As the project grew, more people began to provide aid—whether it be through contributing supplies, providing food, or donating money—with eventually over a thousand people directly involved with this community construction project. On the University’s side, they finally came up with a revised plan to build a sports field at the site of the park. Although the University and builders had conflicts, Earl Chiet, the vice chancellor of Berkeley, relented over a quarter of the space for the park construction project.


But in the end, it was Governor Ronald Reagan who would disrupt the peace, calling the campus “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviats.”

On Thursday May 15, he would send a mixture of California Highway Police (CHP) and Berkeley Police Officers to the Park on the day of a scheduled protest. Chants of “Let’s take the park” filled the streets, overflowing into the neighboring houses. Next thing they knew, the group of 159 police were up against 4,000 people, some of whom were dismantling the park as they marched. And so the police opened fire.. and brought reinforcements of 791 more police officers.


From then on the park became a dual symbol, representing the dangers of overpolicing, and the eventual triumph of the voice of the people.The park stayed under the power of the people (as seen in its name). Its future, at least then, also stayed under the power of the people — a power well fought for, which came at a terrible cost.


Fifty years later, People’s Park has become a homeless hub. Before it was built, it was a patch tax-free of land where no one had wanted to step foot on — home only to the homeless.


The dream that led to Bloody Thursday was cut down. The visions of communities gathering to plant trees, the hopes to build an ecosystem out of the barren ground, the final goal of a place that could represent the breadth of democracy and activism has been destroyed. Those trees are no longer there anymore.


In the name of wildfire control, they have been viciously torn up and thrown out, leaving emptiness behind—a slap in the face for those daring to speak up and hope for better.

With the descent of the original activists’ work also comes the descent of potential supporters. “It definitely does not attract students,” says Berkeley Freshman Joyce Luo,“instead people actively avoid asking near it, especially at night because it’s dangerous. It has fallen into disrepair over the years.”


And now, Berkeley, armed with a $312 million budget, a judge, and a moral “okay,” is reading to finally demolish the park to make way for dorm space— back to where this whole thing started.


Currently, Berkeley houses over 45 thousand students and expects 12 thousand more in the coming years. According to Berkeley’s official housing website, on-campus residency only rooms approximately seven thousand students— clearly demonstrating this issue that has been haunting the University for decades.


“We generally don’t have enough housing for undergraduate students and only first-year students are guaranteed housing. After your first year, people have to live in off-campus housing, and it’s pretty hard to find a nice place [so] people start signing leases as early as October/November for the next year,” Luo states.


However, even with accessible off-campus housing, each of the eight locations only host 500-800 beds. In fact, this very plan being proposed for People’s Park will only host around 1100 students.


The bigger issue between developing dorms is not about getting the profit to develop infrastructure, but rather finding the ample land for it.


For other places, it may be all too easy to find areas this large and close to the university for such a housing space. But Berkeley’s situation is different. Like many larger cities (LA, New York, and more) and some of the other older college towns, land is at a premium here.

This isn’t a simple matter of where to move the housing project to; for all the places it could be moved to are already being converted to housing units (as seen by the six housing units already in development)... and it still isn’t enough.


Despite the major factor of housing availability, the underlying issue (and so, the heart of the debate) is different: do you preserve a proud legacy or prepare for the future?


With inflation on the rise, the housing market has been hit especially hard. According to Forbes, all over the U.S., the consumer price index (CPI), has increased to 9.1% making it the highest in 20 years. At the same time, housing supply is down and weekly interest rates are climbing, only driving up the prices.


The only method to combat this is through building more housing, and even then it’s not sure whether this can bring down prices. The irony in the situation, according to chief economist Sam Khabarovsk, is that to combat the inflation, The Federal Reserve is “increasing interest rates, which is leading to a pullback in construction, which will make housing even less affordable down the road.”


All inhabitants of the city, whether it be weary students struggling with loans and rent or natives who are barely able to afford living in their home, want the housing prices to go down. However, because the housing market responds so quickly to debt and interest, buyers and builders could be left with property that is worse quality, yet more expensive.

Ultimately, building more dorms at People’s Park won’t help with both housing availability and pricing today. All it would attribute towards is “flattening the curve” and preparing for the future influx of students.


The situation essentially boils down either to preserving the true nature of the park and renovating it to protect both the homeless and the students, or to tear down relics in place of a future that may not shine brighter at all.


Currently, the go ahead for this project has been halted, but as October opens, the debate is once again coming ahead.








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