Transcript of Giving Voice: Kera Lovell
Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice. For this installment of Giving Voice, I’m joined by Kera Lovell, professor of American History at the University of Utah Asia Campus and the author of a forthcoming book about people’s parks. If you haven’t listened to our most recent episode discussing the Black Market Firebombing and the people’s park erected in its place, I recommend you go do so now, as it gives you the context needed to better understand our conversation.
And now, Giving Voice.
[Talking Hoosier History Theme Song]
Beckley: I am here today with Kera Lovell, who is at the University of Utah Asia Campus. She’s a professor of American History there, and she’s currently working on a book about people’s parks. Thank you so much for being here today, Kera.
Lovell: Absolutely, thank you for having me.
Beckley: So, when I was doing my primary research into the Black Market and the people’s park that kind of came out of the Black Market tragedy, I was trying to look into people’s parks a little bit more and came across your work and as soon as I saw it, I knew we needed to have you on the show, so I really appreciate you making the time here in this kind of crazy time of ours to come on the show and kind of chat a little bit.
Lovell: Absolutely, I would love to spend this crazy moment with you that we are having in the world. So absolutely, whatever questions you have.
Beckley: Well, I think that we should probably start at the beginning. Could you give us a little bit of a background lesson about the origins of people’s parks and where the movement kind of got its founding?
Lovell: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s a great question because they’re not the same thing. So, people’s parks, the reason that we know that phrase, and honestly, probably 99% of your listeners are confused about what that even means. People’s parks is a phrase – a “people’s park” is a phrase that we use in the 1960s and, I say “we” meaning “me,” so it’s a phrase that I use to describe a type of protest in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, honestly some examples came through the ‘80s, in which activists took over vacant lots and converted them into parks. And they called them people’s parks and that’s why I call them people’s parks.
So, the first famous one is in Berkeley in 1969; however, that’s actually not the first one. And so my research covers not only that there were people’s parks, because my research is much more interested in what they were saying through protest, about the visual, the material, the performative culture, like how is the act of protest a form of communication, but also how can we embed these protests in their particular cities and contexts.
So, if you actually go to the first one that we know of, the first one that I know of is in San Francisco in 1968, and it’s actually this environmental action group called Ecological Action in 1968. They are planning a movement to protest a landlord that’s buying up housing, and so what they want to do is, in response, is protest it at city council meetings and whatnot. Well, one member of the group is actually killed in this really sad car accident, and so instead, in this act of mourning, in protest of this landlord that’s buying up land, they take over a vacant lot and they turn it into a park. And they do this, performatively, visually, materially – in which they plant trees, they make art, they have these performances in the park. And that’s the first one that we know of that’s not just a garden or a gathering spot, but it’s actually a performance protest piece. And it doesn’t last that long – it’s only a few weeks, but that one, which is super interesting, is at the same spot in which more than a year later is the most famous one, which is Berkeley’s People’s Park. Essentially, we had spectators at that one that was like, “Oh, wow, that’s interesting. I see what they’re doing.” And more than a year later, students at the University of California Berkeley do the same thing in which they’re protesting how landlords are buying up affordable housing from students, and so they’re going to take over this vacant lot and turn it into a park. The only difference is that with the first one, it’s very quiet, and so they just bulldoze over the spot. With the second one, they fence it up and bring in the National Guard, and it’s this terrible standoff in which the National Guard troops kill bystanders, and it’s just this horrible public relations campaign that makes it into national news that then sparks this national movement of students and other people that are taking over vacant lots and turning them into parks. So that’s what I study, not only that they did it and where they did it, but how they did it and what it meant to them in this moment of time.
Beckley: Wow, that’s really interesting. I had never dug deep enough, I guess, to find the actual roots of it. I thought that it started at Berkeley. I guess that was kind of where the national movement started, would you say that’s right?
Lovell: For sure, for sure. Absolutely. And I think that’s the difference. Because with the Berkeley’s People’s Park, and again I say Berkeley’s People’s Park, but there’s more than a dozen of them actually in Berkeley, because they’re so good at their campaign that even around the city, there’s many different people’s parks that are started at this time. But I would say that that park is so successful in its campaign, not necessarily successful in its long term campaign, we can actually see other spaces, and I’m happy to talk about them, in which they’re more successful in being culturally accepted or socially accepted, but Berkeley’s People’s Park that’s right next to the university is the most famous because it’s able to utilize the underground press in campaigning for the idea that it’s unjust, what has happened to them, and really capitalize on tens of thousands of readers in a couple of days’ time span and sort of catalyze them into a protest movement against this.
Beckley: So, when you talk about other parks being more successful in being socially accepted, I know that some parks, like Bloomington’s Peoples Park, was later legally sanctioned – do you see a correlation between a park being socially accepted, or, I guess, the movement behind a park being social accepted, and a later legal sanction?
Lovell: I think that’s a great question. So, yes and no, and I think Bloomington’s a great example because, while it becomes legal, it doesn’t become socially accepted. So, in a lot of these different cases, what you find is that because the historical context changes from protest movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s to the demand for space by the late ‘80s and ‘90s, which, if I’m going to refer you to a historian, there’s a great cultural geographer by the name of Don Mitchell, and he writes a really interesting book about the right to space and about how by the late ‘80s and ‘90s, there’s a push for the homeless, because there is an increasingly white homeless population, and their demand for public space, and how a lot of these different spaces like Berkeley’s People’s Park become an issue over free speech and right to public space become an issue of homelessness and how we’re not actually addressing the needs of that. So, I say that all to mean that most of these spaces become socially, culturally tainted of, like, the people that occupy those spaces are no longer the people that are interested in free speech and politics, but are interested in homeless encampments. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with it – I’m not trying to put my speech one way or the other, I’m just saying that the context has changed from the ‘70s to the ‘80s to the ‘90s, in which we’re much more interested in are people poor, and do they have a right to that space, rather than are they students and more political and in the ‘70s, they were much more interested in are you political, should you be in public space, whereas not it’s are you homeless and should you be in public space.
But one positive example that I give, which is, I think, if we’re looking at ranking these parks, the best example of a people’s park I would argue, is Chicano Park in San Diego. And that begins as an illegal park, and that is because it is park – ok, so let me back it up. So, actually, it’s this group of Mexican Americans in San Diego in Barrio Logan, so what they are campaigning the city council for is a park, for years. And so what happens is that they’re campaigning for a park, campaigning for a park, and they never get it. And so what happens is the area where they had been told was going to be their park, actually one day, the state brings in bulldozers to build police headquarters there by the highway. And so they flip out, and they are, justly, very angry at this, and it actually coalesces with the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, in which they take over the lot that they’re actually – the state has decided they’re going to convert into police headquarters and they’re like, “No, no, no, no, no, no. We’re going to make this into a park.” So they take over the bulldozers. They start planting their own things. They start having food. Like, they literally take it over and they start an encampment and they’re like, “We deserve a park for our community, because we’re being run out of town.” And so, what’s important is that, because it happens in 1970, about a year later, after Berkeley’s People’s Park, plus they’re interested in legalizing it in a way that they want it institutionalized. They want a park for their community. So they stick with it for the long haul in a way that I don’t know if other spots in other cities are interested in. So, I say that in meaning that what happens is that in San Diego, they get it legalized. They get it institutionalized as that takeover as a park. And what’s really cool is that, not only is it successful in the takeover, but that the people who created the park were much more interested in, “how do we evolve the park? And how do we push it? And how do we create it as part of, embedded in the community?” Which is more than a political symbol of a takeover of a space. Like, Chicano Park, which you can visit today, is involved in local parades. It’s involved in local festivities. It’s involved in local celebrations of Mexican American culture, in a way that it’s institutionalized in not only a protest over, “We want to claim space,” but it’s also an important part of the local culture of San Diego in a way that I don’t see in a lot of other people’s parks otherwise.
Beckley: Do you think that the People’s Park Movement – I know that you had mentioned, the park right before Berkeley’s park, sorry I’m blanking on the name, but that that one was the first that wasn’t just a garden. Now, I know today, or at least a few years ago, guerilla gardening was kind of a big thing. Do you see a influence from the People’s Park Movement in the guerilla gardener movement?
Lovell: That is an excellent question, and I am – the only reason, I am both excited and hesitant to answer, but only because I‘m excited in that you made a connection, but also hesitant in that I also don’t know the exact origin. For example, there are historians in African American history, for example, that have been able to pinpoint guerilla gardening way before Berkeley’s People’s Park.
Lovell: Yea, and so there’s excellent research on, say, if you have poor people that move to a new neighborhood, they create gardens. If you look at immigrants who move to a new neighborhood, they create gardens. And those are inherently guerilla gardens in they’re not on property that they own. So, does Berkeley’s People’s Park make it more fashionable with young college students? I would say yes, because they have a greater handle on popular culture and especially the underground press to push it to become popular. And to be popular meaning that they are trying to make it a political statement. Is guerilla gardening a political statement before Berkeley’s People’s Park? I don’t know if it is. Again, there are historians that will argue that guerilla gardening, for example, during World War I or World War II is a political statement in arguing that it is very much important as a part of a resistance to an “other” identity beyond our country. However, I can’t be a good person to say that, but I’m so glad that you said that, and I think that if you think it’s because, since the late 1960s and ‘70s, Berkeley’s People’s Park has been associated with this leftist political identity of we should take over public space and make it into gardens. However, people have been doing that since there has been land to grow food on.
Beckley: So, I’ve just – my mind’s kind of working now, and I’m thinking of another, I don’t know if I would classify it as a movement, but something that’s happening in, I believe San Francisco, people are grafting fruit tree limbs onto decorative trees in the middle of medians and things like that in order to – ‘cuz those limbs will then produce fruit still – they’re doing that in the hopes of providing a free source of food for the homeless population – do you, especially it being in California, I just, I can’t get past that there might be a connection there but then it just might be that it seems like a good idea and I’m just making connections where there aren’t any.
Lovell: No, I think you’re right on track. I think that the only difference is that in my research, what I can see, is that when this movement starts, and I say movement meaning that there is a huge source of these parks that start in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, they don’t use the word homeless. So, they use the word street people. They use the word, like, “It’s parks for the people.” And so, they’re interested in, like, “it’s free, because it’s for the people.” So it’s really not until we go to the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, in which we begin to use the word homeless that it begins, that people start to talk about, like, “we need a space for the homeless.” And it’s not because we don’t have people living on the streets beforehand, it’s just, it’s not necessarily part of their identity as, like, a social ill. And again, that’s even problematic to say because if you looked at Reagan, he would definitely say that street people in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was a social problem and an identity, but they themselves wouldn’t see it. And so, to me, the answer to that question is best explored in the history of Berkeley’s People’s Park, because there’s actually so many archival sources on this one park, because you can go through and see its design over the years and how through the early ‘80s, in which they’re actually thinking about homelessness, and they’re actually thinking about access to people with disabilities, and we have new activist groups that are trying to redesign the park to make it more accessible and to make it more accessible not only for people in wheelchairs but for people that are homeless. And how, it’s never easy, like, they’re constantly struggling with, “how do we design it? And how will people accept it?” And I think it reveals more about how people are more increasingly trying to situate themselves within the context and be better, and yet they’re struggling with the issues that are going on within society.
Beckley: I’m wondering, what do you see as some of the direct legacies of the movement that are still seen in society today?
Lovell: Ohh, that is an excellent question. I think that, if we were fresh on the Occupy Wall Street movement, it would be really easy, because that was such an easy time to be able to say that people are interested in the relationship between space and power. And understanding the idea that if you take over a space in public and you claim it as your own illegally, it is a form of power, and how do people negotiate that? And so, I think that that parallel to what we see in the late ‘60s and ‘70s in which people are much more interested in the performative, symbolic act of, we’re not necessarily going to grow a field and it last for 20 years, but, like, we are going to take this over and see how people react and see how we can bring communities together. So I think that’s one thing that I think people find – it’s confusing for people nowadays that want to have their backyard and find it difficult, the idea that someone would go to a vacant lot and take it over as a symbol of protest – it’s very confusing, and I totally understand that. So I think that, if you take that away and we’re not just looking at symbolism and protest, one thing that I think would be very important is that Berkeley’s People’s Park is this really famous symbol at the very beginning of the environmental movement, so we have a lot of other environmental issues that are going on in America, and yet the human factor of Berkeley’s People’s Park, the fact that, if we’re just looking at symbolism at the end of the day, it’s a lot of people that are planting flowers in this vacant lot and they are shot for that. And for understanding of very different ways. But the fact that people are shot for gardening, it catalyzes this national – even international – movement in which people are interested in planting flowers and are interested in bettering the environment. And we actually see for many years after that in different environmental actions in which they refer to Berkeley’s People’s Park as this moment in which we can see people just trying to care for public space. And so, I think that’s very important that at the time, it was a catalyst for we should take care of the environment and care about it and care about the people that are tending to the environment. And I think that it’s only later because of public relations that we’ve kind of gotten confused on that issue, but at the time that was the number one thing that comes about was that we have environmental action campaigns in Berkeley, nationally, and in other cities that are really important.*
Beckley: I love speaking with you because every time you kind of bring up a new facet of the People’s Parks Movement, I kind of see it reflected in Bloomington’s Peoples Park as small scale as it was. I found a lot of newspaper clippings talking about people experiencing homelessness being there and then being kicked out of there and then camping on sidewalks and being allowed back there with increased police presence. And just everything you say kind of brings me back to Bloomington’s Peoples Park, which is something I love about history -just all of the little connections between such a big national and international movement and something that happened here in Bloomington, Indiana.
Lovell: It’s true! And I didn’t even mention racism, which is such a critical component of Bloomington’s Peoples Park, and which often doesn’t get talked about with the early people’s parks in the Bay Area, but it absolutely was like the first people’s park in San Francisco, which is about ecological, created by ecological action, but what they do is they’re very much interested in how can we create these parks and neighborhoods in which we can bring white people and Black people together? And even with Berkeley’s People’s Park, in which it becomes national news, they’re very much interested in how can we create a space in which we can get the Black Panthers involved? Or we can get anti-racist activists involved. And they’re very interested in how we can use these parks as coalitional issues, which I think is so beautiful about the Bloomington’s Peoples Park, in which it is, even though symbolic, a beautiful moment of coalition for people in that community.
Beckley: Well, I think that is a beautiful place for us to end today. Thank you so much for being on the show. I think that this is one of our best conversations to date, and I cannot wait for people to hear it.
Lovell: Yay! I’m so glad. Thank you so much, Lindsey.
Beckley: Thank you.
[Talking Hoosier History Theme Music]
Beckley: Once again, I want to thank Dr. Lovell for taking the time to talk with me for this episode. We’ll be back soon with another new episode, but in the meantime, follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana History tidbits. Subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks for listening!
*Note: This Giving Voice episode was recorded in May 2020, before the widespread Civil Rights protests began in reaction to the killing of George Floyd and other instances of police brutality across the nation. During the recent protests, some interesting parallels with the People’s Parks Movement have emerged, the most striking of which is Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. The Autonomous Zone, alternately called the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP), is a section of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood which has been occupied by protesters and labeled as a “no-police zone.” It is meant to be a place to live out the ideals behind the Black Lives Matter movement, an experiment in decreased policing and communal living. The parallels between CHOP and the People’s Park Movement are very clear – a group of people have illegally taken over public spaces visually, materially, and performatively in order to demand action. As of June 23, 2020 the CHOP is still active, although Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has announced that the city will be working with Black community organizers to clear the encampment after three shootings occurred in the area.
Show Notes for Giving Voice: Kera Lovell
Learn more about Dr. Lovell and her work here.
Contact Dr. Lovell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about the history of people’s parks here.