Angela Natividad's Live & Uncensored!

30 June 2019

A Flicker of Thought for People's Park

"It's got the worst bathroom in the East Bay... but it might be the last truly free place left in America."

So says Stark Mike in Emma Silvers' article, "Contested Territory," about the latest existential battle for People's Park in Berkeley. It was printed in California, UC Berkeley's alumni rag.

I never read California. Whenever I see it, I'm grated by the idea that there are nine schools in the University of California system, 23 Cal State schools and countless other state universities besides, but Berkeley got to claim "Cal" for itself, as if there's something especially Californian about it. It smacks of the careless entitlement that makes Americans call ourselves, well, Americans, as if all the other countries sharing North and South America are spin-offs or off-brand versions of the United States.

It's been 13 years since I've graduated. I've moved at least four times, and California keeps finding my address. The magazine is now a given in my adult journey, harder to shake than any possession I may be more inclined to call mine. It shows up in my mailbox, inexplicable but inevitable as sunrise, even as jobs, pets, relationships, country, and politics change.

The result is that I tend to ignore it.

The People's Park article grabbed me, though. I don't know why. Back at school, the legend I heard was about volleyball courts: The land belongs to the university, which tore down housing and has tried using the space for any number of things people find reprehensible. Cal once erected volleyball courts, and People's Park supporters came swinging mallets, hammering at the smooth, flat concrete of entitlement until it cracked.

People reclaimed it, grew things there. It's an idyllic story—us against The Man, and we won!—but mostly I remember that People's Park reeked of pot and chaos: Unkempt and snarly plantlife, filthy bathrooms, shouting transients and slummin' schoolkids—born-again converts to liberalism, defenders of Those Less Fortunate who, in a home game, probably crossed my high school quad in an anxious, judgmental huddle, like the lot of us were muggers.

People's Park is again, and like always, under threat. The variables: A housing crunch for students, a clever chancellor who doesn't just want to convert People's Park into dormitories but social housing, too. There's even word of erecting some kind of plaque, and keeping space preserved for public activity (likely better-manicured than the current iteration). She's generating surprising support from fronts typically resistant.

Age transforms even things you thought you understood into abstractions. That's perhaps its main function—to remind us we know nothing, over and over again. I am sad, maybe felt I had the right to resent and avoid it, because I didn't realise how fragile People's Park was, never fully absorbed what it meant—a folly typical of youth, not just of people but of all things too young to digest history, including our own country.

We are only now beginning to understand how delicate our own values and freedoms are, how easy it is to reverse generations of advancement.

All of this is to say, I wish I'd held my nose, suppressed my own entitlement, and crossed People's Park at least once. Next time I go home—less and less these days, an unspooling, elongated tragedy in itself, given how hard I worked to escape—it may not exist, and one more holy land will become mere mythology.

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