Sunday, November 13, 2011

People's Park, Berkeley

A portion of a mural painted on the restroom in People's Park

Today was a nice fall day, so a HALS adventure was in order, but with other things to do I wanted to visit a nearby site. Deciding on some place in Berkeley I reviewed the list of possible places and was struck by a listing for People’s Park. Initially I wondered why someone had included it in a list of potential HALS sites in Alameda County. It is certainly not historic – the database noted a construction date of 1969. On the other hand it certainly qualifies as a cultural landscape, and since my hometown of Oakland has gained international recognition during the Occupy movement maybe this is a timely topic.

Footpath into the park and canopy trees at the perimeter

People’s Park is a lasting monument to the Free Speech movement that began in the late 60s and continued through much of the 70s while I was a student on the Berkeley campus. Walking around and through the park one sees many signs reminiscent of today’s protests. One also sees many elements comparable to any other community park – an expanse of lawn, a variety of trees and plants, a community garden, a stage, a restroom building, picnic tables, art and even a tot lot.

Though this is a park conceived and constructed by volunteers – some who considered themselves anarchists - its design is remarkably similar to other parks - conventional. It occupies about two-thirds of a city block, has paths that enter the park from each corner and side, and has signage, lighting, and trash containers. There are areas shaded by mature canopy trees and a large, open, grassy area in the center where a group had erected canopies for an event and a blow-up toy for kids. UC students were attending the event while street people relaxed in their low-profile but very obvious encampments.

Picnic table, event canopies & blow up toy in central lawn area

Is this a cultural landscape? I say yes. What is more American than protesting? Let us not forget that our nation began with the American Revolution. A column in Friday’s paper by Thomas D. Elias tells me that “the average income of the top 1 percent of Californians rose from $778,000 to $1.2 million per year, while the average income of people in the bottom 80 percent actually fell.” And a sign in People’s Park notes, “On Bloody Thursday, the day UC administrators had a fence put up around People’s Park, we took to the streets. 30,000 people marched. LET 1000 PARKS BLOOM!”

Community garden beds line one side of the park
Our public open spaces – both designed and vernacular – often provide the venue for public discourse. We landscape architects design these spaces to encourage quiet conversation between two friends or massive public gatherings to voice our angst. Frank Ogawa Plaza, named after a long serving City Council representative, and where Occupy Oakland is based includes a large amphitheater and stage and the Jack London Oak – the symbol of our city anchors the park. This great tree and plaza serve as the forecourt to City Hall, the center of our government.

Artistic commentary

Another park sign