An artificial rose and an empty bottle of Hennessey cognac sit on a porch at 3331 King St., right next door to the scene of the double shooting Tuesday morning that took the life of Rammar Johnson and left Noel Turner, Jr., in critical condition.
But this small tribute to a fallen friend is not intended for Johnson or Turner. The flower, the bottle and a card are for James Earl Solomon, a 44-year-old resident of 3331 King St. found dead in his apartment on Jan. 4. Solomon’s cause of death is still being investigated by the coroner’s office.
The card features a heart marked “63rd” and pierced with a knife. It carries a number of signatures and farewell messages.
“Thanks for being a good friend and a good person,” reads one, “no matter what they say about you.”
In this south Berkeley neighborhood, the few blocks of Berkeley that sit on the other side of Alcatraz Avenue, one heartbreak bleeds into the next.
“It was a quiet neighborhood in 1985 – a nice, quiet neighborhood,” said Charles Daniels, a 17-year resident of 62nd Street.
Daniels is the president of the 62nd Street Neighborhood Association, a group that its members say was formed three years ago in response to a sudden increase in drug activity in the neighborhood. His home is half a block away from the site of the Tuesday morning shootings.
According to many who live on the block, Tuesday’s tragedy is merely the culmination of years of criminal activity in the neighborhood.
Daniels can recount a long, sad list of crimes on his block over the past few weeks. There were about 20 people fighting on the street on Christmas Eve. One person was stabbed.
Daniels said his group has been increasingly frustrated at city government’s apparent lack of concern. He said that everyone from Vice-Mayor Maudelle Shirek, who represents the district on the City Council, to the city manager’s office has turned a blind eye.
“She doesn’t answer our letters,” Daniels said of Shirek. “She ignores us.”
“Tom Myers (the city manager’s community liaison) came to one of our neighborhood meetings, and he’s ignored us ever since.”
Shirek’s office did not return calls on Thursday.
Myers said that a number of city departments have been working on blighted houses and other issues, but that they had a long way to go.
“We haven’t solved all these problems, and we haven’t worked as closely with the neighborhood group as we could have,” he said.
Myers said that from his perspective, the 62nd Street group’s activism seemed to have waned in recent months, and that he hoped that more people would become more involved in the neighborhood.
“It’s unfortunate that there has to be an incident (like Tuesday’s shooting) that brings out activity on both sides – government and neighborhood groups,” he said.
Phil Kamlarz, deputy city manager, added that the lines of communication between his office and the neighborhood were open.
“We want people to feel safe in neighborhoods,” he said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Karen Klitz, Walker’s neighbor and another active member of the neighborhood association, said that drug pushers began moving in around the spring of 1999.
No one knows exactly why they picked the neighborhood, she said, but she suspected that there must have been a police crackdown on drug activity in Oakland that pushed them across the border.
Nowadays, according to Klitz, the pushers have taken over the neighborhood to such an extent that many neighbors, especially the elderly, live in a continual climate of fear.
“Neighbors have been threatened when they’ve told the druggies to get off their property,” she said. “They’ve been told that their house would be firebombed.”
On a recent clean-up party organized by the neighborhood association, residents were intimidated by the dealers – many of them teenage children – who muttered threats at them under their breath.
Sam Dykes, president of the Adeline/Alcatraz Merchants Association, said that he sees drug sales from his store on Adeline Street every day.
“There’s a group of kids that walk up and down the street all day, all night and in any kind of weather,” he said. “They’re operating a drug supermarket.”
Dykes said that when police conduct sting operations in the neighborhood, it always turns out that many, if not most, of the buyers and sellers of drugs are commuting into the neighborhood – the buyers from Walnut Creek and Concord, the sellers from Richmond and Oakland.
Both Walker and Klitz said that the only city agency they felt was concerned about their troubles is the Berkeley Police. They had particular praise for Officer Rob Rittenhouse, who patrols the area four days a week.
“He has been the most helpful,” said Daniels. “He comes to every neighborhood meeting when he can. He gives us suggestions about how to handle some of these things.”
But Daniels took exception to a recent statement by the BPD that there was no known gang activity in the area.
“With what I’ve seen, I’d have to say otherwise,” he said.
“There have been huge gang fights here – as many as 40 people fighting on that corner. It’s one bunch of people trying to run another bunch out.”
“And they say it’s not gang-related. If it’s not gang-related, what is it?”
Daniels added that he’d like to see the BPD tackle the problem a little more aggressively.
“I think the cops in Oakland are a bit harder than the Berkeley police,” he said. “I’ve seen the Oakland police pull up to a corner and fill their car with people, where the Berkeley police will just get out and talk to them, then drive away.”
“The druggies aren’t afraid of the Berkeley police.”
Klitz said that she “didn’t want to turn into a Nazi about this,” but that the problem had gotten do far out of control that more direct and forceful action had to be taken.
“Almost everyone on this street is a good, law-abiding person,” she said. “We all want to see this neighborhood cleaned up.”