Monday, September 04, 2006

At home in the Park


In the spring of 1990 my business partner and I stopped at People's Park in Berkeley. We sat on a log among the homeless people. Some were cooking food. Others rolled around in the grass with their loved ones. Some smoked weed and some drank booze. Most dressed in rags, tie-dye shirts, jeans, long hair, short hair, leather jackets, and bare chests.

We were two businessmen sitting there with them—would-be land developers. Such was the power of People's Park to attract all kinds of folks. A worn-out looking Park resident came up and said, "What are you guys doing here? You don't belong here!" My partner responded, "We're people too!" We kept sitting. The long-term resident shrugged his shoulders, indicating we were okay. We had established our turf on a log.

Dozens of homeless people lived in People's Park. Eventually the University built a volleyball court, and pushed some of them out into the streets of downtown Berkeley. But the Park remains; people still live there. For nearly 40 years People's Park has been a symbol and a home to people who did not or could not live the "American dream"—all for different reasons. There's freedom there. It is a freedom akin to crossing the Frontier in a covered wagon. Dangerous, lonely, and alienating, but space and time are your own in a way that no mortgage payer or renter ever knows.

Some Park people refuse to live in shelters. They want the street. This is their home. Others were in complete misery. They were there because they fell off the edge of the housing market. Not enough money from odd jobs, too few friends and family, a mind slipping away from the stress of life, and no housing they could afford. A formula for coming to the street as home.

Some of my radical friends from 15 years back became disgusted with the Park. One noble liberal preferred to work for social justice from his antiseptic non-profit office, while taking offense at People's Park. He wanted those dope-smoking bums out. He was once a radical fighting the establishment—now he and his associates were establishment but they didn't know it.

I've had my moments close to the edge. Only my friends kept me from the street. My business partner had similar troubles. You owe it to yourself to hang out with the dispossessed. As the Depression proved, very little separates us from the street.

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