Dangerous. Intimidating. Don’t go there. With the mention of People’s Park, any uplifting conversation is bound to step into the realm of negativity. Urban legends surrounding the place are occasional, and the park- home to many people- is almost always avoided after sunset. My roommate hurriedly blocked my exit from our room as I expanded on my objective of introducing the stories of those living in People’s Park to the world. As such, People’s Park is tagged as hazardous, viewed as a blemish in the city, and ironically shunned by the “people”. To find out whether the rumors were true or actually biased preconceptions, I stepped onto the wooden trails of 2556 Haste Street.
My first two approaches to the inhabitants were unsuccessful; the first man was genuinely uninterested in talking to me while the second was willing but had just packed to leave. Sure, the two approaches ended up failing but neither had given me the vibe that I was unwelcome in their home; instead, they were completely fine with talking to me, just not on the facet of sharing their stories. Absurdly encouraged, I approached three other individuals sitting in a circle, surrounded by three dogs- one sleeping, and the other two running at each other in elliptical routes. I confidently began with my usual, “Hello, my name is Ryan and I’m from UC Berkeley. Do you think I can join you and share your stories?”
“Sure, sit down brother.” Without pause, I was welcomed by a middle-aged man who introduced himself as Skater Joe. The other two, who introduced themselves as Matthew and Jersey, also shook my hand as general courtesy. As I sat down, one of the black Yorkshire Terriers wiggled its tail and jumped on me.
“King Buliwyf,” Joe noted. “His name comes from the movie, The 13th Warrior. You know it?”
Having never heard of the movie, I responded with an uncertain shake of the head. “Well, I mean you gotta know Michael Crichton? Jurassic Park? It’s a movie based on his book The Eaters of the Dead!”
Sure, I knew Michael Crichton- and the fact that he wrote Jurassic Park- but I wanted Joe to continue. Intrigued, Joe went about the plot of the movie, through its twists and turns, and finally to the significance of King Buliwyf. After criticizing my pronunciation of his dog’s name (pronounced b uh l v ay) until I had mastered even the articulation on the “wy”, the topic turned to me.
“So what did you want to talk about again?”
Well, what did I want to hear from them? Did I wish that they had once been billionaires stabbed in the back by the corporate world, and now living the abstemious way of life? That they were outstanding scholars who had finally found the meaning of life and refrained from the materialistic world? No. Whatever their path up to now consisted, and no matter how trivial or momentous their anecdotes proved to be, I wanted to hear their life stories. And so Joe continued.
Joe originally came from Maine. How he traveled over 3,300 miles and ended up at the Golden State still remains a bizarre happening, but with his extensively detailed incidents he convinced me he wasn’t telling a fabricated narrative. In Joe’s story, it was other people, not Joe, who were in the spotlight; from asserting that Berkeley’s policemen were most understanding of those in need to reminiscing back to 8th grade when his friend first showed him a computer, Joe tended to bring the surrounding people into focus. But most intriguing was his experience in Ohio, where he met Jersey for the very first time.
Joe had stayed near a care shelter for about 3 months, where according to him, he met the most beautiful woman in his life.
“She was tall, her hair was black, and her lips were really-”
“-My girlfriend,” Jersey interrupted.
“Yeah I know,” Joe shrugged. “But it was her personality that really got me. Trust me, she was an angel.”
“Is it that girl again?” Matthew finally joined in on the conversation after half an hour of determining which pine leaf was the longest in his perimeter. As Joe nodded, however, Matthew sighed and returned back to his task, except this time comparing the sizes of pinecones. Joe continued.
“Once, she took us two and two more that stayed in the same block in her van and drove us to a thrift store. She made us pick some clothes and bought them for us-”
“-Jersey’s still wearing that damn shirt,” Matthew jumped in again, cynically pointing to Jersey’s now darkened Hawaiian half-sleeve shirt.
“Anyhow, she was the nicest human being I’ve ever met. I don’t know what she saw in Jersey but hell, he was a lucky man!” And though the story seemed to end there, Joe continued as if carefully digging through his treasure box of cherished memories.
“You know what, people like her make the difference in our world. She didn’t care about the new iPhone, she didn’t look at other people in hate, but she had the time to care for others. You know what I mean? You don’t need to judge people by where they are!” Looking around the park with a sense of pride and companionship, Joe stood up. “Hell, people here are actually nice! They come from different places and we all ended up here. This park has history too, you know?” Joe frantically asked me to follow. “Here, let me show you.”
Up I went and trailed the steps of Joe, who strode gallantly through the blades of grass like a medieval crusader in a mission to uncover the deep roots of the park. In moments we were outside and walking down Haste Street where we stopped by a building covered in paintings and graffiti.
“A People’s History of Telegraph Avenue” <http://berkeleyplaques.org/plaque/telegraph-avenue>
As Joe mentioned, most people don’t know the history behind People’s Park. Where it started, what caused it, and who made it- all relevant questions that people tend to ignore as they plainly question the existence of the park. But the park had much more to behold beyond imagination:
People’s Park, now home to the large homeless population in Berkeley, was created in 1969. The University of California had acquired $1.3 million worth of land south of campus to build student residences and parking facilities, and had begun the demolition of the existing buildings, only to run out of funds midway. The empty site remained full of debris and quickly became an eyesore to the citizens of Berkeley. On April 13th, 1969, local residents and merchants met to discuss possible uses of the site, and decided to create a public park for the people. On April 20th, hundreds of people gathered to clear the ground and plant grass and trees, which led to the birth of People’s Park. The park was originally built with the intention of creating a haven “where people from all backgrounds could gather in a beautiful setting, listen to music, learn from one another, and freely express themselves,” a place where they could rally . Then-governor Ronald Reagan “considered the creation of the park a direct leftist challenge to the property rights of the university,” and on May 15th at about 4:45 a.m., ordered Highway Patrol and Berkeley police officers to invade the park and set up a fence to keep the people out . This led to “Bloody Thursday,” the “most violent confrontation in the university’s history,” in which thousands of people (later reaching 6,000) marched from Sproul Plaza down Telegraph Avenue to People’s Park chanting, “We want the park!” . People were tear-gassed and injured by the police, including innocent bystanders. Shots were fired, and James Rector, a student, was killed, and Alan Blanchard, a carpenter, was permanently blinded. Even after all this, it took People’s Park much conflict and turmoil, including many protests and casualties, to become what it is today. It was not until 1972 that the wire fence surrounding the park was taken down, and the Berkeley City Council voted to lease the site of the park from the University.
Filled with people from different races, evident conflicts and riots, and protests eventually leading to peace, the “art” on the wall displayed the chronological timeline of the history of People’s Park.
“I never knew that this mural embodied such a deep meaning…” I whispered.
“Well, most people don’t. And look what they do! They graffiti all over the painting and you know what?” Joe let out a sigh. “That’s just plain disrespectful."
“Images, from left to right, include: Mario Savio speaking at the October 1, 1964 sit-in on Sproul Plaza that sparked the Free Speech Movement; Vietnam War protesters; Black Panthers; the street scene on Telegraph Avenue in the Sixties; the creation of People’s Park; the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street on “Bloody Thursday,” May 15, 1969, when the streets in this neighborhood exploded into violent confrontation between police and demonstrators protesting the University of California’s seizure of People’s Park; the shooting, by Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies, of James Rector who was watching the demonstration from a rooftop on Telegraph Avenue. He died four days later.”
Berkeley Historical Plaque Project, 1999 (This plaque was a gift of friends of People’s Park to commemorate the Park’s 30th anniversary, April, 1999)
People’s Park, which really is a park of the people, by the people, and for the people, seems to be losing its original purpose and significance, becoming a place of much criminal activity, a place to be avoided at all costs. Let us not forget what it took not only to build, but to protect it. As the plaque ends on a hopeful note: “The mural concludes with a vision of liberation. Within inches of a homeless young woman sitting on the sidewalk, a tree breaks through the gray cement. Entwined in its branches a triumphal procession, shedding the clothes of the past as it proceeds, dances its way down Telegraph Avenue into the future.”
P.S. I met Joe later. Not at People’s Park, but sitting on a curb just two blocks away from it. I recognized him from quite far away with his beat-up skateboard and King Buliwyf running up and down the street. And as I approached, he reached out his hand: “How you doing, brother?"