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People’s Park, Tent Cities, and Property Rites

People’s Park: June 4, 2020                                                                                                                                       

May 30, 2021 An update from Berkeley, where homelessness and public education are both in crisis

People’s Park’s homeless encampment continues to grow. Tents now cover most of the embattled plot of university property where fifty years ago, blocks of old shingled and clapboard houses like mine were demolished for dorms that were never built. The ground became a parking lot, then a famous forum for antiwar protests, drugs, and what remained of Sixties counterculture. 

Tent camps are both the latest and the oldest response to California’s housing crisis. The most recent, Project Roomkey, has placed a few thousand vulnerable homeless in empty hotels; now there is new federal funding for the program.  But colonies of new trailers intended for the unhoused have sat vacant, and tiny houses are expensive. What seem to be working, still and again, are these tent communities, whether scattered and scruffy or–not often–in neat grids, with services.

Large numbers of homeless in this affluent society are not a new phenomenon. During the Great Depression, homeless encampments were called Hoovervilles to spite the sitting president. 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 barely moved house, we went with friends to break up some asphalt in People’s Park to plant trees.  Shortly thereafter, we marched against Nixon’s mining of harbors in Cambodia. We were recruited into Berkeley’s new architectural preservation group, too late to save the houses demolished 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 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 was receiving ever less funding from the state, and was forced to raise ever higher tuition from ever more students. All kinds of housing was 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 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 volunteering with homeless support groups and a food recycling network.  I wrote a novel, Soup of the Day, about homelessness and a soup kitchen, folding in feuding academics and a failing newspaper. Alas, while the novel is out of print, its themes remain relevant. I wrote a sequel that will never see print 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.

Westward the Course of Empire, by Emmanuel Leutze, 1861 actual size 20′ x 30′

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, jesting 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, who didn’t share the western imperialist view of property rights.

Francis Shattuck’s eventual heir was philanthropist Weston Havens, born in 1903, whose family had lived around the corner from our Hillegass house. The maiden lady who sold us her family home had grown up with him. 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 had hoped that it might grow to soften the view of the four-story apartment building next to us. But in 1940 he built a radically modernist house on Panoramic Hill where he lived until his death.  

Meanwhile, our Colonial Box on Hillegass Avenue was continuing to increase in  value as the Bay Area economy boomed. A century past the Gold Rush, there was now the pulsating prosperity of Silicon Valley and its garage geniuses. And 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. Nay, more, that it is still further to depress the condition of the lowest class.… It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down.

George saw the root cause 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 to income inequality, 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 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 others have forgotten.

Real estate speculation, hard to regulate, remains a prime cause of income inequality, and property tax is still the most significant source of funding local government services, especially education. In 2020 California voters failed to pass a measure that would have brought bring billions of dollars to schools and other casualties of our broken state economy.  It would have taxed commercial and industrial property valued over $2 million at its assessed value rather than its purchase price. But people today fear any measure that mentions taxes.

Peralta camp, in Oakland

After the pandemic, after our racial conflagrations, our planetary climate crisis and national reckonings in governance, housing, health care, and education–our stock market continues to thrive. Will this baffle financial and social reform efforts? Federal funds  could, in the best of all possible worlds, build affordable housing and create jobs. But such programs will require Congress to raise taxes, if only on the rich. 

The future may be full of surprises, and not necessarily locusts or earthquakes. After the hard times of the Great Depression, the nation finally returned to full employment—thanks to World War II.

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