by Carol Denney June 2022, Berkeley Daily Planet
People's Park Matters; The National Register of Historic Places Says So, by Carol Denney
One thing is as clear today as it was in the earliest days of People's Park. People's Park is significant from every conceivable angle. It's as though the park is an historical, architectural, ecological, and cultural prism that insists on being more than a park can possibly be, a significance one hopes is beginning to dawn on the UC regents and the Berkeley City Council.
Even now the park is saturated with the people whose housing and human needs are ignored by the mayor and council's insistence that market rate projects will someday make room for the people dislocated from the low-income housing bulldozed to build them, and that inadequate, temporary shelter in humiliating circumstances is worth trading in one's autonomy and safety. These two chimeras are still waved aloft by local leadership just as clearly as People's Park demonstrates their bankruptcy.
People's Park set Ronald Reagan on his path to his presidency. People's Park is where August Vollmer's famed 1908 effort to professionalize policing met an equally powerful, now nationwide grassroots effort to make policing accountable. People's Park is where the first university accredited, participatory, community-run native plant garden brought together master gardeners, acolytes of Jim Roof, students, hippies, and anyone with a shovel and an interest.
People's Park is a monument to peace in a world still at war over monuments to war, an unruly cultural garden threatened by a nuclear weapons contractor trying to impersonate a school. The People's Park Historic District Advocacy Group which documented the trees, the plants, the birds, the cultural shifts born in the park's river of creation, succeeded in getting unanimous affirmation from the California Historic Resources Commission and an affirmative listing on the National Register of Historic Places alongside Kent State, the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival, and thousands more historic sites in an effort to clarify to myopic local leadership that parks matter - all parks matter. People's Park's willingness to challenge the status quo, the defense industry, and the racist roots of our nation never mattered more than it does right now.
The San Francisco School Board, only a year or so ago, voted to "paint down" a commissioned New Deal fresco by Victor Arnautoff in a passionate and embarrassing misunderstanding of the work's effort to address our nation's racist roots. And Tuesday evening, May 24, 2022, the San Francisco Board of Education quietly voted to retire their effort to destroy the artwork by withdrawing their appeal of a successful citizen-led effort to protect it.
Nothing protects People's Park; not the National Register listing, not the fact that it is listed as an historic resource by the State of California, not the fact that it is a City of Berkeley landmark. Nothing protects it but our sense of respect for our most significant historic sites and the fragile culture they represent to people all over the world.
If you share any of this shared sense of respect, let your representatives know so that decades of hard and historic work isn't erased within weeks of this extraordinary National Register honor.
Carol Denney, co-founder of the People's Park Historic District Advocacy Group
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