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People’s Park, Berkeley, August 24, 2021
From the street in front of my house I can see the encampment in People’s Park a block and a half away. The smoky haze does not hide a new red tent that appeared this morning, although the university campanile and its celebrity falcons are almost obscured behind the scrubby trees.
Fifty years ago, two blocks of old houses like my own were demolished for student dorms that were never built. In time the space became a parking lot, morphing into People’s Park, a famous forum for antiwar protests, drugs, and what remained of Sixties counterculture. Now the university hopes to build again on the site. Chancellor Carol Christ, a popular and trusted administrator, proposes dormitory towers, “supportive housing” for selected homeless, and recognition of the park’s significant past in the design of the project. University of California regents, park neighbors, and the advocates of a People’s Park historic district are weighing in, both in and out of court.
Tent camps are both the latest and the oldest response to California’s housing crisis. But colonies of new trailers intended for the unhoused have sat vacant, and tiny houses are expensive. Gavin Newsom’s optimistic program, Project Roomkey, placing vulnerable unhoused in vacant hotels and motels, was only tenable with federal support. What seem to be working, still and again, are these tent communities, whether scattered and scruffy or–not often–in neat grids, with services.
Homelessness in this affluent society is hardly a new phenomenon. What is new is the emergence of these encampments in city centers and at highway intersections, where their high visibility and persistence painfully signal, any way you look at it, a broken social contract.
In 1971, having just moved house, we went with friends to break up asphalt in People’s Park to plant trees. Shortly thereafter, we marched against Nixon’s mining of harbors in Cambodia. About then we were also recruited into Berkeley’s new architectural preservation group, too late to save the twenty-five houses levelled on Block 1875, People’s Park. Of course we had no problem reconciling our protests for and against the Establishment: we oozed righteousness on both counts. I ascended to be president of the Berkeley neighborhoods’ coalition, my husband led the preservationists.
Many of the demolished family homes in People’s Park had been re-purposed as rooming houses, and when our kids eventually emigrated to points east, we rented rooms to students. The university, receiving ever less funding from the state, was forced to raise ever higher tuition from ever more students. All kinds of housing were already scarce by the 1980s, no little thanks to the continuing NIMBY concerns of neighborhood groups and preservationists like us. The median home price in Berkeley had bloated 300 percent in less than a decade. The twenty-five houses on Block 1875, People’s Park, would today be worth well upwards of $50 million and could have housed hundreds of students.
While we were passively amassing real estate, I was writing about local soup kitchens and shelters as well as local literary matters. This soon led to fewer poetry readings and more time with homeless support groups and a food recycling network. I wrote a novel, Soup of the Day, about homelessness in a gourmet culture, folding in feuding academics and a failing newspaper. While the novel is out of print, its themes remain relevant. I wrote a sequel unlikely to appear in our Cancel Culture–involving competing native American and Mexican land claims on a campus not unlike, as they say, the University of California, Berkeley.
The founding myth of the University of California describes eminent clergy shading their eyes as they gaze across the bay, quoting Bishop Berkeley: “Westward the course of empire….” More recently, the University has been described as a group of entrepreneurs seeking a parking place.
In 1868, joking aside, the location of the new university campus vastly inflated the property values of four local investors. Francis Shattuck, William Hillegass, and their partners had divided a square mile of land just south of the projected campus, for which they had paid about $31 per acre. The loser in this deal was ultimately the holder of the Mexican land grant, Jose Domingo Peralta–not counting the few surviving natives, whose history is piously noted in historical plaques if not in property ownership records.
Francis Shattuck’s eventual heir was philanthropist Weston Havens, a childhood friend of the maiden lady who sold us her family home. When we moved in, he gifted us with sacks of fertilizer meant to sustain the viciously rampant Silver Moon rose over the driveway trellis. He wanted to soften the view of the four-story apartment building south of us. But in 1940 he built a radically modernist house on Panoramic Hill which he left to the university.
Meanwhile, our clapboard manse on Hillegass was continuing to increase in value as the Bay Area economy boomed. A century past the Gold Rush, there was the pulsating prosperity of Silicon Valley and its garage geniuses. And in California, especially, the rich grew richer, billion by billion, and the poor poorer, year by year, decade after decade.
As Henry George, 19th-century economist and social reformer, observed: . . . the tendency of what we call material progress is in nowise to improve the condition of the lowest class in the essentials of healthy, happy human life. George saw the root cause of inequality as wealth increasing through unearned land value, whether near the new transnational railroad lines or next to the projected campus of what would soon become the world’s top public university. Henry George’s solution, a single tax on land value, soon proved flawed, since land’s value also depends on its potential and its improvements. In 1880 George left the west coast to try out his progressive ideas in New York City. In the mayoral race, he finished well ahead of Republican Theodore Roosevelt, but lost narrowly to a Democratic candidate whose name I and many others have forgotten. * *
Real estate profiteering, hard to regulate, remains a prime cause of homelessness. A group of homeless mothers in Oakland, California recently defeated eviction efforts by a major speculator and gave a boost to community land trusts
While property tax remains the main source of funding public services. California voters have repeatedly rejected any tax increases, even on the fattest commercial and industrial property. As the state budget shrinks support for public schools and colleges, the University of California, already short of housing, raises tuition costs and expands enrollment to fund its programs. And hopes to build on the now-historic site of protests against our misguided wars. That there was never any protest in People’s Park against US policy in Afghanistan suggests that local historic memory may be on life support.