Cultivating People’s Park

Written by Aliya Benudiz
Spring 2018

I wanted this garden to speak to the importance of issues surrounding homelessness, food insecurity, urban green space, and sustainable agriculture. I am incredibly proud of the efforts of everyone of People’s Park and my friends who came out to volunteer; this project could not have come to fruition without them. I was inspired by the original movement in the 60s to build a park by just the will and labor of the community, and hoped to emulate the values of past activists in my project. In turn, I hope that my garden inspires people to see the value and beauty of the park and to advocate for its protection as it faces threats of destruction once again.

Garden upkeep in People's Park

Historical Roots of People’s Park

The iconic People’s Park in Berkeley was established as a symbol of freedom, activism, and human rights. Before it was a park, it was a simple vacant lot where members of the 60s Counterculture found sanctuary. The University Regents believed that the area was riddled with immoralities that would disincentivize respectable parents and students from coming to the school. They voted to take the land by eminent domain for future dorm development, which could bring in a large profit for the University. However, the bureaucratic proceedings for that project took so long to implement, that the land became a free-for-all mud parking lot. Beginning in the Spring of 1969, self-motivated shop-owners, radical students, local artists, and homeless and homeowner citizens alike came together to independently build a community park that would be accessible to all. People organized work days and elicited donations from local organizations to gain all the needed landscaping capital, and over time, the project gained momentum. It was clear that citizens were in favor of building something equitable and beautiful, rather than destroying a common meeting space and building exclusive property. The power-elite of the University feared the rise in activism and local support, and sought to squelch out any movement to save the land as a park. Soon, more students began to back up the project, and a massive protest was held to protect the park from destruction. During this protest, President Reagan called in the national guard to quell the activists with force, and in the process, and innocent student bystander was shot and killed. This only fed the flame of those fighting for the park, and eventually, the University backed down, and the park was allowed to establish. It was a significant victory for peace and justice, and the park went on to grow and become a center for music, recreation, urban gardening, and homeless outreach. Now, 49 years later, we are facing the same battle once again. The University is pushing for the destruction of the park by 2019, before the park can celebrate its 50th anniversary. Over the years, resources to the park have become very limited by the University, causing it to slowly degrade and wither. However, that does not mean that the citizens of Berkeley have stopped caring about the park. It is still a cultural epicenter for Berkeley, and serves as a vital sanctuary for the growing population of homeless folks. Food Not Bombs regularly visits the park to distribute sustainably grown meals to those in need, and many other organizations like churches use the park as a meeting place for homeless outreach. Furthermore, the park serves as an important green space for the residential area surrounding it. With a little love and care, People’s Park can be brought back to life and protected against the threat of destruction.

Cultivating a Community

Over the years, People’s Park has developed its own unique culture and community. The homeless population was very active in the park’s creation; they brought invaluable assets to the table such as gardening and permaculture knowledge, musical talent, community organizing and project planning abilities, carpentry skills, and a passion for social activism. Many of the projects in the park were initiated by these free souls, and they were absolutely pivotal in maintaining and protecting the park. However, through unfair media portrayal and unjust police activity, this population was demonized and blamed for the occasional crime that occured in the park. This led to an inaccurate portrayal of the nature of the park. Students often told other students to stay away from that area, and created an exacerbated, unfair image that the park was a dangerous, dirty place that should be avoided. However, I had a very different personal experience over my past four years of living in Berkeley. I have always lived within a mile radius of the park, and would walk past it almost every day on my way to class. And almost everyday, I was greeted with smiling faces and friendly hellos from groups hanging out in the park. I would hear music playing and people conversing and laughing, and see small camps of young homeless kids all supporting and protecting each other. They were finding their own ways to cope in such a stressful condition, and were even finding time to have fun and enjoy life in their own way. To me, it was absolutely beautiful. I began spending my free time hanging out in the park became acquainted with some of the people that relied on the park as a safe space. I wanted to know their stories and get to know them as friends. Over the years, my fondness for everyone there grew, and I made it a priority to check in with all my friends there frequently and offer any assistance I could. Through this, I was able to cultivate meaningful bonds with so many wonderful people, while also learning about their history and the history of the park. I developed a vested interest in the park, and became determined to protect this sacred space.

Gardening To Save The Park

When I began to think about what I wanted to do for my Food Systems Community Engagement Project, my mind instantly gravitated to People’s Park. A decade ago, one of the features of the park was a small community garden that grew a variety of crops and was a source of fresh fruits and vegetables for many disadvantaged people of the park. It was well maintained by a handful of locals, but as they grew older, their work in the garden decreased and eventually stopped. This led to the once productive planter boxes to become overgrown with invasive grasses and weeds. It became hidden and forgotten about. I decided to make the goal of my project to renovate these planter boxes and bring them back to life as a productive urban garden that was accessible to the community. Furthermore, I wanted to engage the homelessness population inhabiting the park by getting their input on the garden’s design and implementation. I also viewed this as a way to speak out in defense of protecting People’s Park from destruction. This would prove that people still care about the park, and that it is a place full of collaboration, determination, and growth.

By mobilizing the local community and collaborating with fellow activists, I replanted five old planter boxes with new viable crops. I was able to independently fundraise and gain a budget for starter plants, tools, fertilizer, and other supplies that such a project would need. Once I had this support, I collaborated with a handful of homeless People’s Park locals who had expressed interest in helping with gardening, and together, we created an action group that would be in charge of the development of the garden. We started organizing work days where volunteers could come out and help us weed out the boxes and till the old, infertile soil and eventually start planting new starts. I also created a Facebook page for the project in order to spread awareness and petition for volunteers. However, I quickly came to realize how much of challenge it was to clear out a decades worth of weeds and re-fertilize the soil. It took multiple work days, many trips to nurseries and supply stores, and help from my friends at the park in order to make the boxes viable again. We planted the crops based on input from people in the park and permaculture knowledge, and created a diverse ecosystem where grasses once dominated. Instead, broccoli, cauliflower, snap peas, kale, tomatoes, red and butter lettuces, collard greens, bell pepper, zucchini, cucumber, thyme, rosemary, sage, and fava beans now grow. Everyone I’ve talked to at the park was so excited to see improvements being done, and were looking forward to enjoying the future harvests. In order to now make the products of the garden more accessible, I plan to reach out to an organization called Food Not Bombs. They take raw produce and cook it into meals that are distributed among homeless populations, and often visit the park to distribute these meals.

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