People's Park and the Great American Infill
After the 1970s, we agreed to all let each other have our space. That's over.
Back when I was a sophomore in college, I used to go up and visit a friend of mine at Berkeley to watch anime. His apartment was on the edge of People’s Park, a little one-block park near the UC Berkeley campus. I remember walking through the park past the homeless encampments and drug users, and feeling a little bit adventurous.
The origin of People’s Park reads like a fairy tale of the 1960s. The university bulldozed the site in order to turn it into student housing, but a pair of hippies, who had been using the vacant lot for their romantic affair, called for it to become a park instead. Other hippies responded and came together to build the park on their own. When the university came and fenced it off to begin housing construction, the hippies protested en masse. The cops brutally suppressed the protest, killing one bystander, but ultimately backed off. From that moment up until now, the university has intermittently tried to develop People’s Park, and every time its development plans have been foiled by protesters.
Now, after all these decades, the university may finally have its way. A new plan to turn the park into a combination of student housing and supportive housing for homeless people and veterans has been temporarily halted by a court order and is being fiercely protested by a few local leftist types, but the university has walled off the whole block with shipping containers, and earth-moving machinery has already torn up much of the park.
I am of two minds on this.
Obviously, the state of California and the city of Berkeley are in a severe housing crisis, caused by stubborn refusal to build new housing. The NIMBYism that has blocked housing again and again represents the anti-development bargain of the 1970s — the hippies’ dream of open space, and minorities’ fear of displacement, combined with affluent suburbanites’ desire to keep the poor out of their communities. Economically speaking, People’s Park will do a lot more for the homeless when there are houses on top of it. The leftist protesters who suggested that the homeless live in shipping containers instead of supportive housing sounded just as out of touch as any NIMBYs. (They also hounded a Berkeley city councilmember out of office with death threats, which was a pretty bad thing to do.)
And to be fair, the park is not really the community gathering place that the hippies originally intended. Police are called to the park about five times a day, on average, and there’s about one violent crime there every five days. In 2017, a 2-year-old playing in the park was fed methamphetamine by a woman there. There are plenty of places in Berkeley where hippies do gardening and community events; this is not one of them. I can’t blame the university for wanting to redevelop it.
And yet at the same time, it feels like something wild and untamed is going out of the world. People’s Park is — or maybe I should say, was — a little irreducible island of chaos in the middle of the orderly world of suburban streets and houses and public university buildings. Walking by it, the upper-class professionals of tomorrow and the landed homeowning gentry were forcibly reminded every day of the existence of society’s most abject castaways. As they stepped quickly and nervously past the park, the lurking presence of tents and huddled forms in the corners of their vision served as a reminder that the game they had spent their whole lives winning was one that someone had lost. And perhaps at the back of their minds, a small voice whispered: “That could have been you.”
That People’s Park catered to the lowest of the low was exactly why it represented freedom and equality. There are few spaces left in the developed world that exclude absolutely no one. Now, if Berkeley’s plan goes through, there will be one fewer.
I see this as a small symbol of yet another closing of the American frontier. America began as anarchy, and our history has been a series of repeated offensives against that anarchy, in which we tamed our civilization a bit more each time. The unrest of the 1960s was an eruption of wildness — a revolt against the order that industrialization and the World Wars had brought. Romanticism bucked against rationalism; the spirit of the frontier returned, as an idea rather than a place. It was the wildness and ungovernability of Americans, rather than any remote mountain range or desert, that kept People’s Park untamed.
America dealt with those years of unrest by spreading out. We fled the inner cities for the security of the suburbs — not just White people, but middle-class Black people and eventually Americans of all races. There, hunkering behind fences and lawns in our cavernous houses, we could do our own thing, and forget that we were all part of the same country. Americans segregated ourselves by race, but even more we segregated ourselves by politics — liberals moved to big cities and the coasts, conservatives moved to the exurbs or stayed in the heartland.
We bowled alone. We dropped out of civic organizations and cultivated our hobbies. We stopped watching CBS and consumed our own partisan news. We became a nation of subcultures. Suburbia was our new frontier — even if for kids who grew up there, it often felt like a trap. We guarded that frontier with NIMBYism, with zoning laws and environmental review and parking requirements. When the internet came, that frontier, and our subcultures, went digital, and we escaped each other even more.
That was the bargain we made in the 1970s.
That bargain broke down at the end of the 2000s. Two things made it untenable. First, we reached the limits of our ability to endure long commutes out to ever-more-far-flung exurbs, even as economic clustering effects pulled people back to the big productive metros. Places like California’s Inland Empire went from clean, pretty refuges to struggling, shabby decline, even as rents soared in cities unwilling to accommodate the inflows of yuppies. The second thing that happened was the dual advent of social media and smartphones. This turned the internet from a place you could escape to into a place you had to escape from — a churning maelstrom where every single political viewpoint, identity, and subculture that had found its own space during the previous four decades was suddenly thrown together and stirred in a pot.
Urban limits and the rise of mass social media closed our frontier, yet again. I often say that the 2020s are the new 1970s, because we’re at a similar point in the American cycle of unrest. Once again, political coalitions, social relations, and the economic order are in flux; we are searching for a new equilibrium, a new bargain. But this bargain won’t look quite like the last one. In some ways we’re going to have to reverse the changes we made in the 70s.
That’s what the development of People’s Park is about. In the 1970s, when suburban land was cheap, there was no cost to preserving one little plot of urban land as an anarchic hippie zone. In the 2020s, with rents pushing everyone but the wealthy out of town and out of state, it’s the resistance to new housing that feels reactionary and out of touch. The end of People’s Park is failing to flood the streets with popular rage; instead it just looks like a thinner-than-usual gathering of lifestyle dissidents.
This conflict will be repeated again and again throughout America over the next few decades. We’ve discovered that NIMBYism is everywhere in America, and thus YIMBYism will have to be everywhere to fight it. The recent string of YIMBY victories is only the beginning, because it has to be; the anti-development bargain of the 70s threw up a massive thicket of defenses, and that thicket will take decades to tear down. But as long as rent pressure persists, Americans will fight for relief, and new supply will be the only way to get that relief at the nationwide level.
Soon there will be very few Americans left who don’t realize this.
We’re thus living through the Great American Infill — the closure of the frontier of suburbia.
The pressure of infill will be mitigated somewhat by the spreading of economic activity from “superstar” cities to other cities around the country, aided by the rise of remote work. But in the end, even if people move to Nashville and Denver and Bozeman, the lingering power of clustering effects will create a lot of pressure to live near the city center. The suburbs of these cities will be speckled with rowhouses and low-rises and duplexes and missing-middle housing of all sorts, while city centers will slowly open themselves to high-rise housing. The country won’t become Tokyo or Manhattan, but it’ll look a little more like Germany.
As for cultural infill, this will also be slowed by the migration of internet users from big centralized social media sites like Instagram and
What this will mean, I suspect, is an America that’s less wild and free than the one I grew up in — but one that’s also more orderly, more communal, and perhaps more rational. I confess to being ambivalent about that. I liked many things about the fragmented, chaotic society that the Boomer generation bequeathed us. When I walk past the housing where People’s Park used to be, I’ll smile in the knowledge that a lot more people have a place to live now. But I’ll also think about the people who used to hang out in the park, and I’ll wonder where they went.