Research by historians, preservationists, students, neighbors and concerned citizens


People's Park from the air.

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People’s Park is Berkeley’s most famous landmark and provides irreplaceable open space

By the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group

Berkeley is one of the most densely populated cities in California and open space is needed, particularly in the extremely crowded south campus area.

Historians, preservationists, students, neighbors and concerned citizens have come together to form the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group to document and preserve the open space of People’s Park and the historic resources encircling it.

Although there is no denying that truly affordable housing is needed, People’s Park is Berkeley’s most famous landmark and is valuable, irreplaceable public open space for the densely populated south campus area. We oppose construction on People’s Park. Our group, which formed in the summer of 2019, is moved to action by the following issues:

  • People’s Park, a designated City of Berkeley Landmark, is the centerpiece of 11 surrounding landmarked properties, each recognized for local, state, and/or national significance.
  • These landmarks, collectively, reflect the historic beginnings and development of both the University of California and the City of Berkeley.
  • Berkeley is one of the most densely populated cities in California and has a need for open space, particularly in the extremely crowded south campus area. The lack of park acreage in Berkeley has been noted for well over a 100 years.
  • People’s Park, created by the free speech and community activism of the 1960’s, today opens up a clear vista upon the 11 iconic properties, ranging from the pioneer John Woolley House (1876) to one of the great monuments of American architecture, the First Church of Christ, Scientist.
  • The open urban space and the surrounding historic properties have all, together, suffered from disruption, turmoil and instability but share together the potential for transformation as an irreplaceable asset and community resource. 
  • Now is the time to call upon the university and the city, together, to acknowledge and to enter into dialogue to preserve and improve People’s Park as the heart and soul of a historic district that will provide much needed open space in the Southside, as well as celebrate a shared place of local, state and national distinction.  

We call on the chancellor to join us in celebrating the significant historic and cultural landmarks woven into this unique neighborhood and invite everyone to work together with us to support the People’s Park Historic District as a creative, grassroots, community-based, user-developed initiative. Other sites are available for housing; we oppose construction on the open space of People’s Park.

To add your support or ask questions, contact us at




People’s Park Historical District

by Charles Wollenberg

It almost seems as if Berkeley invented the sixties.  No northern city was more affected by that decade than Berkeley, and social and political events in the city had a major impact on the nation and the world.  If there is going to be an historical district commemorating the sixties anywhere in the United States, it should be in Berkeley, California.

Consider the historical record.  In 1960 students from the Barrington Hall co-op crossed the bay to protest a meeting of the House Committee on un-American Activities at San Francisco City Hall.  Their action was one of the first significant political demonstrations of northern college students since the 1930s. In 1964 Cal students began the Free Speech Movement, the first of the great protests that hit American campuses during the ensuing decade, establishing the student New Left as an important political force. Berkeley’s Vietnam Day in the spring of 1965 started a decade of massive anti-war protests.  Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party in South Berkeley and North Oakland in 1966.  By 1967 the counter-culture was well established in Berkeley and rapidly spreading through the rest of the country.   Young people flocked to the Bay Area, heading to Telegraph Avenue as well as San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury.  In 1968 the Third World Liberation Front closed down the Cal campus, striking for an ethnic studies college.  1968 was also the year the Berkeley School District began an unprecedented elementary school desegregation program that included two-way busing of Black and White children.

Berkeley naturally became a major target of the New Right conservative backlash.  That movement’s titular leader, Ronald Reagan, campaigned for governor in 1966, promising to “clean up the mess in Berkeley.”After his election, one of Reagan’s first actions was to engineer the firing of UC president Clark Kerr.  In 1968 and again in 1969, Reagan sent the National Guard into Berkeley, establishing something like martial law.  Reagan was the most influential electoral politician produced by the sixties. He owed very much of his initial support to his opposition to Berkeley and all it seemed to stand for.  Differences between Reagan and Berkeley activists during the sixties are still reflected in many of the political and social issues that dividecontemporary America.

All of these forces came together and acted and reacted upon each other in the conflict over People’s Park in the spring of 1969.  Student leftists, counter cultural idealists, ethnic activists, followers of the new ecology andwomen’s consciousness movements were among those who supported the park.  But the establishment responded with force to protect the university’s property rights.  Alameda County deputy sheriffs killed one man and seriously wounded several others.  And yet the violent confrontations ended with a massive, peaceful march, accompanied by music and pungent clouds of marijuana smoke.  Young women put flowers into the rifle barrels of equally young national guardsmen.

Probably no single event, then, involved so many of the diverse and often conflicting forces of the sixties than the struggle over People’s Park. It is altogether fitting and proper that the park should be the core of a proposed historical district.  If Civil War battlefields are preserved and protected to commemorate the great conflict of the 1860s, why not preserve and protect People’s Park to commemorate the profound social and political struggles of the 1960s?

It is a minor miracle that the park still exists as publicly owned open space available for preservation.  For the last half century, the University of California has barely tolerated rather than actively treasured People’s Park.  The university’s attitude of neglect if not hostility is at least one of the reasons for the park’s physical and social decline.  It is difficult to believe that one of the world’s great educational and research institutions, with brilliant faculty and talented students, cannot find ways to work with community members to make People’s Park a valuable resource that welcomes visitors, neighborhood residents, and students without turning away and marginalizing the poor and the homeless.  Accomplishing this would not only be consistent with the university’s mission of education and public service, but also with the best values andideals of the sixties.

The People’s Park story is part of the larger history of town/gown relationships in the South Campus neighborhood.  The area is part of a large parcel of land purchased by the private College of California in the late 1850s.  Then located in Oakland, the college intended to eventually move to its new land holding.  A portion of the property was reserved for a campus, while the college subdivided and sold rest of the land, including what is now Peoples Park. The College of California named thecommunity Berkeley and established a grid pattern of streets that still exists.  The new public University of California absorbed the private college and its land holdings in 1868.  When the university moved to Berkeley in 1873, the South Campus neighborhood began a period of rapid growth and development.

“Now one of Berkeley’s oldest and most important neighborhoods, South Campus is the site of twelve buildings and properties established as official Berkeley landmarks some of which are listed on the National Register as well.  Peoples Park is quite properly on that landmarked list. Probably the most distinguished Berkeley listing is the architect Bernard Maybeck’s First Church of Christ Scientist, a National Landmark located on Bowditch Street across from the park.  The proposed People’s Park Historical District includes all nine National Register properties.  The district would help protect these sites from inappropriate development and allow them to be seen in something like their original state.

 Since the 1950s, the university has used its power of eminent domain to occupy and clear formerly private landin the South Campus district to build high-rise dormitories and other structures.  As a result, the neighborhood is one of the most densely populated in the Bay Area.  Ironically, People’s Park is on land the university seized and cleared but did not develop.  As a result, it is the only piece of open space in an otherwise crowded urban environment.  Developing it as a welcoming community park at the center of an historical district would be a tremendous benefit to the neighborhood and an important contribution to good and proper town/gown relations.

But the university has other plans for People’s Park.  After more than fifty years, university administrators propose destroying the park and developingthe land for student housing.  There is no doubt that Berkeley, like the rest of the Bay Area, suffers from a critical shortage of affordable housing.  In Berkeley’s case, the university contributed to the problem by allowing the number of students to grow well beyond UC’s own long-range plans.  But in spite of the housing shortage, Cal would never build dormitories on Faculty Glade or tear down the Eucalyptus Grove to make way for faculty apartments.  Like these properties, People’s Park should be off limits for development.  The university has identified eight other sites for student and faculty housing.  Why can’t Cal build the needed new units on these sites, while maintaining People’s Park as open space?

There are precedents for the People’s Park Historical District.  Berkeley already has such a district surrounding Civic Center Park.  In the South Campus neighborhood, the university bought the site of the Anna Head School for Girls several years ago, when the school moved to a new location.  University planners sought to raze the old buildings and replace them with modern facilities.  But popular opinion and pressure convinced Cal administrators to renovate the historic brown shingle structures, some of which date back to 1892.  The buildings are used for various university purposes, while still gracing the neighborhood with their historic presence.  The site, located on Haste Street opposite People’s Park, is a Berkeley landmark listed on the National Register.  It is an example of town/gown cooperation that can serve as an exampleof how to proceed in establishing the People’s Park Historical District.

History is not the past itself but rather the present’s attempt to make sense of the past.  That’s precisely the purpose of the People’s Park Historical District—to document the sixties in the context of the longer story of town/gown relations and to make sense of this important decade and its impact on the present and future.  If Berkeley all but invented the sixties, surely the city and its university should be able to commemorate that decade by preserving People’s Park as the heart and soul of a vital historical district.


Building Peace in People’s Park

by Carol Denney

On May 8th of 1978 the University of California’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs J. H. (Ted) Chenoweth signed a Letter of Agreement with People’s Park’s neighbors, gardeners, project participants and users affirming the use of the park as “primarily reserved for educational, research and recreational purposes.”  It included a suggested mechanism for disputes resolution, maintenance, and additional issues. It was the first of three agreements over 1978 to 1979. In his outgoing letter to Vice Chancellor Kerley, Chenoweth stated “I expect to remain active as a member of the People’s Park Council” to assist with “communication and coordination.” He is not the only original signer who lives nearby, ready to assist with a framework for the park’s future.

All parties wanted peace. In the late 1980’s, after the 1984 declaration of People’s Park as a city landmark in  for its historical and cultural significance, the university and the city coordinated to create a special committee populated with park and university representatives to assist with decisions about the park. But since then neither the City of Berkeley nor the University of California has shown much interest in assisting the gardeners, project coordinators, neighbors, park users and neighbors who meet regularly to address the issues which arise in a park which feeds the hungry, maintains a community garden, and puts on events and concerts under a 1987 legal court decree by famed Judge Henry Ramsey affirming the park as a quintessential public forum and legally binding the university and the city to respect it as such.

Peace grows more easily in fertile ground, and we have plenty. The Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) voted unanimously to support and affirm the necessity of the newly-rebuilt freebox created on the second People’s Park 50th Anniversary concert April 28, 2019 – a week before a university crew tore it out in the middle of the night. The Peace and Justice Commission voted unanimously to affirm People’s Park’s unique history, a resolution affirmed by a unanimous City Council on Tuesday, May 14th, 2019.

Even the Faculty Senate voted against the university’s plans for the northeast corner of campus which includes cutting down redwoods, losing 150 parking spaces, unaffordable $3,000/month faculty studios but special perks for Goldman School of Public Policy bigwigs; an unadulterated affront to those who recognize “public private partnerships” as privatization of public resources, a favorite Trump mechanism which should offend anyone interested in protecting the public’s land, space, universities, and interests. There’s no real educational benefit for students in the plan rejected by the Faculty Senate. And there’s no real housing benefit in the plan for housing in People’s Park, just another shovelful of public land offered up to private interests out of Texas or Alabama who salivate over the opportunity to feast off of the manufactured housing crisis with guaranteed turnover – “students”, a temporary population, who are housed by semester, and “homeless” people on the popular three to six month timeline where the rent or grant money can go up with every resident’s exit. At UC Santa Cruz students are offered only two years of housing; after that they are on their own.

Peace can be nurtured, planned for, and built. The university seems determined to vandalize our community trees, gardens, park projects and our community’s prospects for a peaceful, respectful, and inclusive future in favor of the conflict it currently has in store. Our parks, our neighborhoods, our peaceful enjoyment of what little crucial urban open space we still have, our respect for the internationally renowned confluence of civil rights and anti-war movements which gave birth to not just People’s Park but the force for ethnic studies, the recognition of free speech’s imperative role in anti-war efforts, disability rights, women’s rights, let alone avoidance of conflict should inspire us to come together – now, while there is still time to build the opportunity for “discussion and resolution of issues” memorialized in the still extant agreements of 1978, 1979, and 1987.

Let’s build the peace. The moment is right for all parties with an interest in and concerns about People’s Park’s future and the future of its neighborhood, the most landmark-saturated neighborhood in Berkeley where, from the park, you can enjoy architectural gems and significant cultural heritage sites in every direction. Just imagine. Whether you’re a policymaker, a neighbor, a student, or a business owner, imagine for a moment that we take this time to plant peace together in People’s Park’s 50th year as surely as we planted the original garden.

There are 10 acres at nearby Smyth-Fernwald’s campus.  Seven post-war dorms on property originally donated in 1926 to the university by inventor William Henry Smyth were only recently razed, while other buildings are currently in use. Re-building the dorms with additional stories on land already graded for construction and dedicated for more than 70 years for student housing is common sense. And just across the street, the spacious 130 acre Clark-Kerr campus has numerous low-rise, derelict buildings which would add hundreds of units without disturbing the landscape or blocking any neighbor’s view. The university builds up there, to be sure; skateboard parks and sandpit volleyball, its former crucial plan for People’s Park.

People’s Park was community land before the university exercised a dubious use of eminent domain in 1967 destroying housing, ironically, for a mix of students, workers, and families. It was then abandoned, left a muddy, rebar-studded blight of old foundations. Neighbors restored to the block to community use in 1969 for a much-needed park. That park is even more crucial now simply as open space. It’s the only park in the most densely populated area in Berkeley, and probably the best-used urban park in town.  It is certainly the only park protected not only as a city landmark but as a “quintessential public forum” by the late Judge Henry Ramsey’s still operative court order requiring the university to allow amplified concerts, a judge whose own civil rights legacy is also a renowned part of California history;

Among his many contributions as a member of our board was his persistent push for the foundation to invest in criminal justice reform, decrying the over-incarceration of young Black men, which he deemed a national crisis. When talking about the work to transition formerly incarcerated people back into communities, he often said that, “the best reentry is no entry.” — The Rosenberg Foundation

Our city leaders are currently negotiating with the university over its over-enrollment and impact on city resources. It’s appropriate for them to include a serious concern about the proposed destruction of an internationally respected city landmark in that discussion.

We can build housing and protect our parks and landmarks. Building peace is an active process. If you’re a city councilmember, a neighborhood association, or just a neighbor, let the People’s Park Committee know you support building peace together rather than cowering in the shadow of the chancellor’s plan.  A jubilee year, a fiftieth year, is traditionally a year of joy, restitution, and the pursuit of long-awaited justice. Our town has suffered extraordinary, blood-soaked tragedy for planting flowers, and if we come together we can actively build a lasting peace.

About Us

Historians, preservationists, students, neighbors and concerned citizens have come together to form the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group to document and preserve the open space of People’s Park and the historic resources encircling it.