The July 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Oakland Youth Organize

Hate Crimes Against the Homeless

Food Bank Helps Ease Hunger

Food Bank Keeps Growing

San Diego's Economic Cleansing

Psychiatric Abuse and Repression

Transit Activists Win Victory

Technology for the Poor

Violent Arrest at City Hall

The Dream of People's Park

New Richmond Shelter to Open

Street Spirit Vendor Tony McNair

Bush's Tax Cuts for the Rich

Corporate Benedict Arnolds

Rain Lane's Photographs

"Say Something" A Short Story

Poor Leonard's Almanack

Poetry of the Streets


June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005






Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

The Radical Dream of a Space for All the People

People's Park is a refuge for the needy and troubled, the idealists and dreamers

by Lydia Gans

Free meals are served at People's Park by Food Not Bombs and the Catholic Worker. Lydia Gans photo

People's Park could only have been dreamed into existence by the radical imagination and dedication of certain of Berkeley's more rebellious and utopian residents.

"It can only happen in Berkeley," as the saying goes. Occasionally, that can be said sincerely and with not a trace of irony. People's Park, a little piece of land a block above Telegraph Avenue, is a truly unique and wonderful happening, a place one could only imagine in Berkeley.

It has been said that the Park is a metaphor for Berkeley, incorporating in one square block the good and the bad, and people of all ages, ethnicities, religions, personal and political persuasions. There may be other "people's parks" in the world, but it is doubtful there is another one like Berkeley's.

The Park is situated between Haste Street and Dwight Way, bounded on the east by Bowditch and on the west by a row of buildings which front on Telegraph Avenue. The land is owned by the University of California, which provides staff to manage People's Park and carry out routine maintenance; but it is cared for, and periodically fought for, by a loose confederation of park activists, people who built and maintain many of the amenities, people who love the Park.

The University might own People's Park, they say, but it doesn't control it.
Except at night between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. when the Park is "closed," there is something going on just about all the time. Located in a densely populated urban neighborhood with a constantly changing population, it serves many needs.

There is always food for people who are hungry. Food Not Bombs has been a presence in People's Park for many years and feeds about 100 people every day. The Catholic Worker provides Sunday breakfasts and other meals, the Hare Krishnas serve from time to time, and various church groups will serve meals or leave food on the stage for people to take. Countless people, from young punkers to poor elderly folks, depend on those meals.

Clothing, too, can be acquired in the Park. The free box holds donated clothes for people in need to help themselves. Unfortunately, like everything else in life, the free box is transitory; that is, it is occasionally destroyed by accident or intention, but it always gets rebuilt.

The free box was recently burned down again. Arthur Fonseca, one of the Park activists who has been responsible for carrying out many projects in People's Park, is in the process of developing a plan and working on getting funds and volunteers to help build a new and better free box.

Arthur came to Berkeley in 1995 and got involved with Food Not Bombs. He recalls, "When I came to the park to serve, it was one of those things. It was a feeling in my heart that said that this is something that is incontrovertibly right going on here."

Terri Compost is the moving spirit behind the community garden in the western portion of People's Park. Like everything else, the garden is a pretty loose operation. Most of the activity happens on Sunday afternoons, Terri explains. "People are welcome to come out, find a plot, commit to tending an area, commit to organic gardening only, or just come and help others," she says.

"There are fruit trees, shared by everyone. Some were planted long ago. Every plant has a story in the west end. There's Fred Cody's memorial grove of redwood trees. There's the homeless woman who stuck this white rose into the ground and it's been blooming profusely ever since - she's long since passed."

There is a thriving lemon tree in the pergola planted in memory of Judy Foster who was associated with Food Not Bombs for many years. Bordering the pergola are benches for people to sit in peaceful contemplation.

The stage has been in People's Park since its early days in the 1970s. Sometimes there are concerts or other planned events; most of the time people just hang out there. A person might play guitar and sing, or someone might stand up and make a speech to anyone who cares to listen.

Every April, in preparation for the People's Park anniversary celebration, the stage is repainted by dedicated volunteers, always with a novel design. For the anniversary itself, a sound system is set up for a day of great bands and favorite local entertainers.

For the more active park users, there is a basketball court and a children's play area in the eastern section of People's Park. That part of the Park also serves as a place of respite for many people who are homeless. Since they are seldom able to enjoy a full night's sleep in the streets and are not allowed in the Park at night, these people set out their gear among the trees and catch up on their sleep during the day.

It is unusual, if not unique, that a park should serve such a variety of people and have so much going on just about all throughout the day. Brad Picard, landscape architect with the City of Berkeley Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department, has worked with some of the Park activist volunteers. "It has a style and energy all its own," he notes.

He points out that it is surrounded by a transient population of students, unlike the usual neighborhood parks which are part of stable communities. "It's incredible the impact it can absorb," he enthuses. "And it's got history, very rich significance. A tiny little park. It's just amazing to me. I've always thought it's one of the healthiest parks I've ever seen."

Claire Burch, a Berkeley filmmaker who films street youth, homeless people and the varied oddballs of Berkeley, says she loves the Park. "I love it because it accepts people who are in other places not accepted," she explains.

Having always been somewhat unconventional herself, Burch knows what it feels like to be "on the fringe." And in the Park, she says, "the warmth of acceptance -- it's magic to me." She relishes the diversity of the Park, saying, "You can have a conversation with so many different kinds of people there."

The people who frequent People's Park do, indeed, reflect the varied realities of the times. Terri Compost says, "People's Park is definitely a reflection of what's going on in society. When there weren't homeless, there weren't homeless in People's Park. Now there's a lot of homeless and People's Park is a refuge. They can't just sit down on the campus or on the street. There's a lot of people who aren't being helped in other places who come to the Park and find some help or at least a respite. So it deals with a lot of issues."

There are people who act out or get belligerent and there are the peacemakers who calm things down. Arthur Fonseca talks frankly about "dealing with the drug use and the dealings and also the extreme poverty that you encounter."

"It is really off-putting for a lot of people," he says. "The kind of people that we would like to have - competent, forward-thinking, ecologically minded - are put off by the fact that we're also accommodating people that have severe emotional disabilities. Probably half the people have something going on, but it's really small scale. Most is just poverty. The drugs come with poverty. People who are poor do their drugs in public; people who are rich do their drugs in private."

The needy and the troubled, the idealists and the dreamers, who love and treasure that little green space will always be with us, whatever the University of California or the politicians say or do.

People's Park, in Spite of Everything

by Julia Vinograd

There are fights over free box clothes
which can be sold and
are grabbed like piles of pirate loot.
Sometimes the box burns down;
who else wears clothes that start fires?
Who else glows in the dark?
Does the FBI have secret agents
drawing shadows of rose petals and
transcribing mutters of sleeping drunks
in case there's plans in code
for an attack on the mirror?
Here are sunflowers to steal our
backpacks and music to steal our toes.
Weddings and memorials and beer cans
opening under the sun like mushrooms.
Some of us play at vampires but sell
our own blood at the end of the month.
Some of us pose for unwanted posters
but that's just our day job. We lie
about the past and move about enough
to block anyone's view of the future.
So what?
This is the place
of "once upon a time."

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