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Tamara Keith: People's Park Is Melting in the Dark


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Tamara Keith: People's Park Is Melting in the Dark...

By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs
Posted April 14, 1999


Photo: Tamara Keith

Tamara Keith.

The 30th anniversary of People's Park is coming up this month and as far as I can tell the only people who will be celebrating are a small group of very loyal, over-the-hill hippies and maybe a few gutter punks.

Basically, most of the students I know feel like People's Park doesn't really belong to them.

But for those who fought for the park three decades ago, that little plot of land represents freedom, sanctuary, community and a triumph over the Evil Empire (a.k.a. the University of California).

As for me, my friends, and I'll assume a big part of the student body, the park is less about Utopia and more about crime, drugs and people who are downright scary. (Example: The guy who carries his worldly belongings in a wheelbarrow and yells hateful things at passersby.)

Although I've never actually seen them and I don't know their names, somewhere in Berkeley is a group of people who have taken it upon themselves to preserve People's Park at all costs. I don't know why they're so attached to a park. I figure it must be a generational thing.

People of my generation weren't even born when the first People's Park riot took place in 1969, a time when it became one of the country's most famous battlegrounds of the anti-war movement and a potent symbol for social activists. Some 3,000 protesters tried to seize the park from the University, starting weeks of riots. Governor Ronald Reagan called out the National Guard, and protesters were showered with tear gas released from helicopters. One person was killed, another blinded, and 600 were arrested.

So much of the park's historical significance is lost on my peers.

I've probably spent more time than most people my age trying to understand what the '60s were like, but I still find it hard to grasp the lingering nostalgia that surrounds People's Park. I read Jerry Rubin's "Do It" more than once in high school, and before I moved up here for college I watched the documentary, "Berkeley in the '60s." Neither the written words of a counterculture leader nor video footage of the decade's tumultuous events has made me truly understand what it was like to be in Berkeley during that bygone era.

It is this lack of understanding that explains why students today see People's Park as an often frightening, always dingy place instead of a historical landmark. For me this park isn't merely a topic of debate, it's a piece of real estate I pass every day on my way to and from campus. I just wish the self-appointed guardians of the park would remove their circa 1969 rose-colored glasses and see the park for what it has become.

I'm not sure what the next 30 years hold for People's Park but one thing is for certain: Eventually, its fate will be in the hands of my generation.

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April 14 - 20 (Volume 27, Number 30)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
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