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People's Park Faces Uncertain Future in Berkeley
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People's Park Faces Uncertain Future in Berkeley

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People's Park Faces Uncertain Future in Berkeley

People's Park Faces Uncertain Future in Berkeley
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Berkeley's legendary place of protest and political activism faces an uncertain future. Critics call it a magnet for drug deals and the homeless and they are urging the University of California, which owns the property, to clean it up. But one man's urban blight is another's hallowed ground.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Up north, just blocks from the first University of California campus in Berkeley, People's Park is a place that everyone there knows. Back in the ‘60s, the small patch of land became famous after police had a deadly clash with student protestors there. Now, nearly 40 years later, many say People's Park has become an eye sore and that it needs to be cleaned up.

But as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, that's not so easy to do.

RICHARD GONZALES: People's Park is owned by the University of California and sits just a few blocks away from campus, but you're not likely to find many students here. On any given day this park is home to the homeless, many of them suffering delusions and seeing conspiracies on every corner.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible) restaurant on Telegraph has to pay $20,000 before he can sell alcohol. The FBI bust (unintelligible). The signs in the windows is it.

GONZALES: This woman is one of many homeless people who come here for free food donated by a nearby restaurant. But others come for a drug fix. Needles, crack vials, open drug dealing are all on display, and many people who live nearby say the park is unsafe. Joe Helprin, a semi-retired physician, sits on the university appointed People's Park advisory committee.

Mr. JOE HELPRIN (People's Park Advisory Committee): The park has become inaccessible to the average folks who live here, and we feel like there's an awful lot of crime there. There's evidence that there's drug dealing going on there, and we want the park to be a place for everybody.

GONZALES: To many, that means a major crack down, getting rid of the undesirables and cleaning up the blight. But to a generation of aging Berkeley activists, any talk of change raises suspicions about the university's motives. Michael Deal is a homeless advocate.

Mr. MICHAEL DEAL (Homeless advocate): I definitely consider myself part of the counterculture. You know, that's what drove me to Berkeley was it was a place with counterculture resistance, and I feel like there's a major effort to kind of drive that away, attack all our common spaces. A lot of it feels like gentrification for me.

GONZALES: Back in 1969, the counterculture was in full bloom as students and activists took over what had been an abandoned lot. They called it a People's Park.

(Soundbite of people chanting)

GONZALES: When police in riot gear tried to move them it out, it set off a bloody battle.

Mr. DENNY SMITHSON (Reporter): The police are now being charged by people who are throwing rocks in great numbers and as a matter of fact police are having to retreat around the corner, which means that it won't be long before they -

GONZALES: Denny Smithson, then a reporter for Pacifica radio station KPFA described the scene. When tear gas failed to disperse the crowd, police fired buck shot at the demonstrators.

Mr. SMITHSON: Policemen just shot somebody with a shotgun. They've got shotguns now and they're using them on people. Somebody was just shot with bird shot.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

GONZALES: One bystander was killed, another was permanently blinded, and more than 100 people were injured. Then governor Ronald Reagan called out the National Guard, which occupied the campus. For some, the memories are still traumatic.

Ms. MARIE FELDE (University of California Berkeley): The circumstances that occurred that created the park were seared in people's memory. And the circumstances around it were - left a lasting impression.

GONZALES: Marie Felde is a spokesperson for the University of California.

Ms. FELDE: Most people, though, who were proud supporters of People's Park back in the day have pretty much come to the view, though, that this People's Park doesn't represent the ideals that the original one did and that something has to happen to improve the environment there.

GONZALES: Felde says the university is committed to keeping People's Park as an open space and has no plans to build a garage or college dorms on the site, despite the suspicions of many old time activists.

One of them is attorney Dan Siegel. He was a principal organizer of the People's Park demonstration. He says 40 years ago the park was a symbol of community empowerment.

Mr. DAN SIEGEL: It's now a symbol of the fact that our society does not take care of poor people who are homeless or poor people who have alcohol or other substance abuse problems. So they gather in parks. It bothers me that the university and society as a whole think that the way in which you solve homelessness is by moving the homeless people somewhere else.

GONZALES: Officials at the university deny they want to evict the homeless. Meanwhile, they're preparing to hire an outside consultant to mediate this conflict between those who see People's Park as a gaping wound and those who want to preserve it, warts and all.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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