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Berkeley Officialdom Ignores an Impending Danger

Friday January 02, 2004

If someone were to, say, set up a catapult in the Berkeley Hills and lob a rock down on the streets of the city every few months, the police in Berkeley would do their best to arrest that person before someone was killed. Yet, a situation with a similar risk to life and property exists on one of our streets, and the city has been repeatedly notified of it but will do nothing about it at all (or next to nothing, but I'll get to that.) There is an old, diseased elm tree standing on Tacoma Avenue near the corner of Colusa. The tree is falling down in sections. Every few months it drops a branch. Some of the branches fall from a height of perhaps 50 feet. It happened a year ago, the branch only hit asphalt, and the city came out and cleared the branch out of the street. Luckily, nobody was injured. Then on Oct. 25, it happened again. This time the branch crushed the hood and fenders of an automobile (as it happens, my automobile.) The force was so great that when the hood was pushed down upon the engine block by the impact of the branch, a bolt punched right through the hood. The damage cost more than $1,800 to repair. If the branch had hit a person instead of an inanimate object, that person would have been grievously injured or killed. 

This happened just before Halloween and I was concerned that more branches would fall from the tree and hurt a child out trick-or-treating. I wrote to the Parks and Waterfront. I received no reply. I then wrote to the mayor, the city manager, and my City Councilperson. Again, there was no reply. I wrote again, and was told, on Nov. 3, that something would be done about it. And, in fact, something was done about it. Someone from the City of Berkeley came out, inspected the tree, pulled out a brush and can of paint and painted a bright red spot on it. And, a month and a half later, there the tree stands, all decorated for the holidays with its bright red spot. I may be slow, but I fail to see how painting a bright red spot on a dangerous tree (and we have obtained the opinion of an arborist that the tree is dangerous) lessens the danger, but then, I am not a professional on such matters. I do know that on Thanksgiving Day, during a high wind, another branch fell off the tree., and still another branch has fallen in the last couple of weeks. Luckily, no one was standing under it.  

That tree, by the way, stands two houses up the street from the Thousand Oaks School. Every day children and their parents park under it and walk down the street to the school, no doubt stopping to admire how wonderful the tree looks with its bright red spot. If we are very lucky, no child, or adult for that matter, will be killed by a falling branch. Yet, the government of Berkeley appears unconcerned: After all, at some point all the branches will have fallen, and maybe nobody will be injured. Perhaps they will do something about the tree after they have increased the parcel tax, or have hired a few more officious and rude bureaucrats to bumble around in the Planning Department making sure that nobody who changes a business address can do so without investing three hours of their time filling out countless forms asking how much alcohol a law office plans to serve and the like. The provision of services other cities would consider to be basic—such as making sure that children can get to school without danger of having their skulls crushed—seems too mundane for the well-paid employees of the City of Berkeley to deal with. 

Another example of the nobody cares attitude in the city is the block of Bancroft Way just west of Shattuck Avenue. This block is downtown and receives a lot of foot traffic. It also is maybe three blocks from City Hall. Police patrol there all the time. Berkeley High kids pass by on their way to school. Library employees use the entrance to gain access to their work. Sometime in September or October a miscreant decided to break one or more windows of cars parked on that block. Scads of pieces of broken glass covered the sidewalk. Those broken glass fragments were still there at the end of November, when I took off for a couple of weeks and left town. On coming back to town I wondered aloud whether my return would still see those glass fragments all over that sidewalk. I was not disappointed. The sidewalk is still covered with glass. Unless I am mistaken, the glass from the car windows has been joined by new glass from broken bottles. It seems that if the city allows glass to accumulate on its sidewalks, with no efforts to clean it, permission is tacitly given to others to smash glass onto the sidewalks. I'm sure this impresses Berkeley visitors to the area, those who, for instance come in to attend movies or plays downtown, or parents who are visiting their students. Again, perhaps this is too lowly a job to force on our highly efficient and well-paid city bureaucrats. 

But lately it occurs to me that I may be wrong. There may be a purpose here. The city may be allowing the broken glass to accumulate in an effort to keep homeless people from sleeping on the sidewalks, although that would seem to be politically highly incorrect. 

Paul Glusman is a Berkeley attorney.