Ten years ago an ugly new style of confrontation erupted in the streets of Berkeley, California.

The events of May 1969 marked the violent debut of a new intensity in campus disturbances. Police carried loaded shotguns and fired them into crowds of demonstrators and onlookers. Army helicopters developed for offensive strikes in Southeast Asia were used to spray tear gas over the Berkeley campus and surrounding neighborhoods. The shooting of student demonstrators in Berkeley, and later at Kent State University in Ohio and Jackson State University in Mississippi, raised the stakes of the Vietnam protest era. Ironically, it was not anti-war protests that drew the first gunfire from police that spring, but a dispute over local land use.

It is easy today to view these events as the death-knell of an overly idealistic decade. But behind the headlines of bloodshed and tear gas lay the beginnings of another story: of grassroots political action and a new approach to planning the use of public lands in our nation’s cities. Many activists of the 60’s have become local political leaders and community organizers, working for the right of local residents to determine the use of their urban environment. And ten years of legislation, litigation, campaigning and plain old-fashioned Yankee-style town hall meeting politics have resulted in significant changes in the patterns and policies of land use in the U.S.

Take People’s Park. Today it is alive and flourishing, and much progress has been made in Berkeley and elsewhere to transform wasted, blighted urban land into usable and productive community space. Another example is the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land which, over the past six years, has quietly acquired and turned over to neighborhood control hundreds of vacant lots in inner city areas around the country.

Support for this movement can also be found in the highest levels of government. Congress itself seemed to adopt the slogan “let a thousand parks bloom” when it recently passed the Omnibus Parks Bill, which authorized the expenditure of over half a billion dollars for urban parks and “the conversion of street space, abandoned schools, derelict land, and other public lands not now designated for neighborhood recreational use.” The General Services Administration has also gotten into the act with a nationwide Community Gardens Program to encourage public utilization of land adjacent to federal buildings.

This is a far cry from the 1960’s when the doctrine of “eminent domain” reigned supreme. Eminent domain is the legal power of government agencies to take private property for public use upon making “just compensation.” Conveniently, the same government agencies that exercise eminent domain generally determine what constitutes “just compensation.” The fact that many property owners don’t believe there is any justification for forcing them out of their homes and neighborhoods and off their farms has historically been at the root of many land use struggles.

Some of the fiercest controversies have arisen surrounding the use of eminent domain by educational institutions. Often, decisions by universities to exercise these powers have been criticized as politically, not practically motivated, and there is little doubt that eminent domain has been used at times to displace certain segments of the population — urban blacks, in particular. The nation’s largest community group, The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) of Chicago’s Woodlawn and Hyde Park areas, was originally formed to oppose the University of Chicago’s use of eminent domain in southside Chicago neighborhoods. A similar situation existed in Harlem’s Morningside Heights neighborhood in New York City where violence erupted in 1968 when Columbia University condemned a public playground to build a gymnasium for its own students and faculty.


In the late 60’s, a variation on this theme was played out in Berkeley when the University of California set aside $1.3 million to purchase four entire blocks of homes in the crowded South Campus neighborhood. The University claimed a need for playing fields, parking space and residence halls, but admitted it would be years before construction could begin due to limited funds.

Tainting this claim was an administrative report to the University’s regents that declared the area “a scene of hippie concentration.” On June 23, 1967, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the purchase was made in response to pressure from the state legislature to rid the area of non-students. Residents accused the University of “dishonest dealings and downright coercion” to force them to sell their homes, and several claimed they received less than market value for their property. Nonetheless, eminent domain was declared and the homes demolished.

For almost a year the land stood vacant and unfenced — a three-acre, debris-strewn mud puddle obstructed by illegally parked and abandoned automobiles. By April of 1969, area residents and merchants began meeting to discuss ways of transforming the eyesore into a usable community facility. On April 18, an advertisement appeared in the Berkeley Barb announcing a “rural reclamation project for Telegraph Avenue.”

“A park will be built this Sunday, April 20, between Dwight and Haste,” the Barb said. “The land is owned by the University which tore down a lot of beautiful homes to build a swamp. The land is now used as free parking space. In a year, the University will build a cement parking lot which will fiercely compete with the other lots for the allegiance of Berkeley’s Buicks. On Sunday, we will stop this shit. Bring shovels, hoses, chains, grass, paints, flowers, trees, bulldozers, topsoil, colorful smiles, laughter, and lots of sweat.”

Two days later, several hundred neighborhood residents and merchants, students and street people began converting the muddy lot into something else. Using picks and shovels, scrounged dirt and a rented caterpillar tractor, they began creating a park. Broken glass and debris were replaced with rock gardens, flower beds, shrubs, trees, and lawns of sod. By evening, children played on swings and sculptures, while hungry workers crowded around a fire, eating free stew. Within a week, topsoil, sod and playground equipment were arriving by the truckload. Hundreds of volunteers participated daily and merchants along nearby Telegraph Avenue donated nearly a thousand dollars.

A week after People’s Park was born, the University announced plans to begin construction on the site within 60 days. Chancellor Heyns asked his Advisory Committee on Housing and Environment for an alternative plan for the park that would include “ideas and proposals from students and the community.”

The chairman of the committee, Sim Van Der Ryn, a professor of environmental design, complained that two days was not enough time to come up with a meaningful plan. The university “didn’t seem to be very interested in negotiations” about the park, he said. Nevertheless, the committee hastily recommended that park users participate in the development of the park, which should serve as an “environmental design field station” for the use of students and the public.

Alarmed by these recommendations, Chancellor Heyns’ next move was to announce plans to fence off the park “to re-establish the conveniently forgotten fact that the field is indeed the University’s.” Leaflets soon appeared in the area warning that “when the University comes to us with its land title, we will tell them: ‘your title is covered with blood. We won’t touch it. Your people ripped off the land from the Indians a long time ago. If you want it back now, you will have to fight for it again.’ ” The stage was set for confrontation.

There were nearly a thousand arrests, more than one hundred people shot, one killed, one blinded, and a million dollars in property damage in one of the longest-running civil disturbances in the nation’s history.

In the predawn hours of May 15, University and Berkeley police moved into the park. Backed by 250 California Highway Patrolmen and the Alameda County and San Francisco Tactical Squads, they evicted some 75 “guardians” of the park. By sunrise, a chainlink fence was being erected around the park, and flack-jacketed police armed with telescopic rifles were stationed on rooftops surrounding the park. More police in full riot gear and carrying shotguns and tear gas launchers cordoned off the surrounding blocks.

Tensions mounted throughout the morning, though there was no violence and few arrests. The campus community was insulted by the military occupation of their streets and angry that the park, which had become so popular, was closed under cover of darkness. Just two days earlier the University had promised that no fence would be built “without notice well in advance” and that they would “not move on the land in the middle of the night.” When asked why the University had allowed the park to grow for nearly a month before erecting a fence, Vice-Chancellor Cheit replied, “We didn’t make an effort to evict these people (because) it would not have been consistent. After all, we didn’t remove the cars parked there.”

A noon rally in Sproul Plaza was called by student leaders to protest the University’s actions. Tensions escalated rapidly as the crowd suddenly surged on to Telegraph Avenue and headed toward the park. They were stopped at Haste Street by a solid line of police. For a few moments, the crowd milled about in the warm sun. Then a couple of marchers turned on a fire hydrant and someone produced a briefcase to deflect the water toward the highway patrolmen. Police moved in to turn off the hydrant and were pelted with rocks and bottles, which some of them threw back into the crowd; there were provocations on both sides and police began using tear gas and night sticks. Then police suddenly opened fire with shotguns, and a dispute over the use of a muddy vacant lot had become a pitched battle. May 15, 1969 became “Bloody Thursday.”

For the next two weeks, one bloody confrontation after another erupted throughout the city as police and troops battled with citizens — not just radicals and street people, but also fraternity members, cheerleaders, reporters, professors, and school children. Before it was over, there were nearly 1000 police and 2300 National Guard troops called in to augment local police. There were nearly a thousand arrests, more than 100 people shot, one killed, one blinded, and a million dollars in property damage in one of the longest-running civil disturbances in the nation’s history.

At first, many Berkeley residents were inclined to blame the park’s proponents for forcing a confrontation. Few, however, agreed with Governor Reagan’s assessment that students were using the park as an “excuse for a riot.” But two events on May 20 helped galvanize support for the park and condemnation of law enforcement efforts. The city awoke to news that James Rector, a 25-year-old student from San Jose, had died of buckshot wounds inflicted by police four days earlier. Then, later that day, Berkeley became the first American city to be subjected to an air strike by an arm of its own government: a huge army helicopter flew over campus neighborhoods spraying CS tear gas. Hundreds of previously uninvolved people were gassed, including children at a nearby elementary school and patients at Cowell Hospital. At the University, choking students and employees fled classrooms, libraries, laboratories and gymnasiums.

Behind the headlines of bloodshed and tear gas lay the beginnings of another story: of grassroots political action and a new approach to planning the use of public lands in our nation’s cities.

Shortly afterwards, the Berkeley City Council adopted a resolution urging the University to turn People’s Park into a “community generated park.” More than 12,000 University students voted to preserve the park in the largest voter turnout in campus history. The faculty Academic Senate also voted overwhelmingly to approve the concept of an “experimental community generated park,” and demanded an investigation into police and “military lawlessness committed since May 15.”

After the fences came the pavement. For the next three years, the fence was repeatedly torn down by the park’s persistent proponents, and each time, the University replaced it. Almost three years to the day after the first violent confrontation at People’s Park, the fence came down for the final time. This time the University did not replace it, perhaps wishing to avoid a replay of 1969, or perhaps having simply exhausted its chainlink fence budget.

Resurrection of the park began immediately. Once again, picks and shovels appeared. Within 24 hours, the concrete and asphalt lay in piles at one end of the lot. Planting began anew.

But this time the enthusiasm that had existed in 1969 seemed to be touched by cynicism. To the more militant, building a park seemed like a silly thing to do. One young man, addressing a crowd of people tearing up asphalt, taunted, “Is this your idea of political action? Digging in redwood and planting flowers? Why waste your time doing something stupid?”

“You have to start small,” one of the workers replied.

The park foundered, and by the end of that summer, many of the plants were dead from lack of water. For the next two years, there was no coordinated plan for the park. While no fence was constructed, University police regularly dispersed groups of more than five people congregating in the park. The University also mowed plant growth with a tractor several times a year and herbicides were occasionally used to check plant growth.

In early 1974, a group of natural resources students obtained the University’s permission to “conduct soil and planting experiments” on People’s Park as part of an independent study course. By summer, the agreement was extended when the students persuaded administrators to allow the plants, mostly vegetables and annuals, to remain until they could be harvested. After that, the agreement was renewed each quarter as administrators became convinced that the gardeners were competent and responsible.

Eventually a few of the gardeners formed an organization called the People’s Park Project/Native Plant Forum. This group has doggedly negotiated with the University for permission to use the land. In the five years since the Forum began “refoliation” efforts, People’s Park has become one of Berkeley’s most interesting parks, though an unofficial one. With the help of donations from student government organizations and the California Native Plant Society, the one-acre garden now contains more than 250 plants, some of them rare and endangered species. Several parcels are laid out to represent California’s major native plant communities, while other beds are reserved for colorful exotic flowers and organic garden ecosystems. Botanical label markers and displays add to the educational value.

People’s Park continues to evolve through a public participatory process. Weekly work parties are held on Sundays followed by potluck meetings in a church across the street from the park. A “People’s Park Council” has been elected and now serves as the official negotiating body for the park. Earlier this year, the Council got the University to agree to provide water, garbage pickup and some tools for park maintenance. The University has also agreed to give one year’s written notice of any changes in land use plans. Although the University still owns the land, it has formally agreed to reserve People’s Park “for education, research and recreation purposes (and) for providing a working model for the introduction of native flora into the urban environment.” Ironically, this arrangement is almost identical to the proposal rejected by the University ten years ago.

One young man . . . taunted, “Is this your idea of political action? Digging in redwood and planting flowers . . .” “You have to start small,” one of the workers replied.

Some University and law enforcement officials have argued that People’s Park was created by radicals bent on precipitating a confrontation. According to the poet and scholar Thomas Parkinson, it gave these same officials an opportunity to act out their fantasies about Vietnam, using Berkeley as “the city that had to be destroyed in order to be saved” from an insidious park. Whatever the analysis, People’s Park certainly affected the history of the 70’s. The desperation of that period is most easily remembered, but a positive spirit has also survived. The spirit that brought together a diverse group of urban residents in a commonly shared project to benefit the larger community prompted the architectural critic, Allan Temko, to call the park “the most significant innovation in recreational design since the great public parks of the 19th and early 20th century.”

It is no longer as easy as it once was for government to exercise eminent domain in California. Beyond People’s Park, important progress is being made toward realizing the dream of community space in our cities designed, built and cared for by the users themselves.

The photographs accompanying this article are available as a PDF only. Click here to download.