Commentary: 1610 Oregon St.: A Problem That Touches All of Us By SHIRLEY DEAN

Friday December 16, 2005

Monday, Nov. 28, was supposed to be the last day that the story of 1610 Oregon St. unfolded in small claims court. I’ve heard every word spoken in all three of the court sessions held regarding this sad story, read all of the thousands of words written in newspapers, letters and reports, and served as mayor during the time the city made an effort to solve the problem through a coordinated multi-service approach. I think this qualifies me to write this. 

Too many people make the mistake of thinking this is a story of a problem in some neighborhood that is far removed from their own lives. The truth is that this kind of muddled thinking couldn’t be further from the truth. This story touches every one of us because it reflects the very values on which any community is built.  

Berkeley takes pride in our diversity and sometimes downright quirkiness. However we look at our community there should be no question that we share the value that the rights of any individual must not impinge on the equal rights of another. So how does a City tolerate the situation at 1610 Oregon Street for so many long years? Why is it that 15 courageous neighbors have to put aside their fears for their personal safety and bear the hurt of public criticism to solve the problem by using in their desperation the only tool available to them, the small claims court?  

These questions deserve real answers. Over two years ago, in October 2003, I asked on the pages of the Daily Planet where was the City Council on the issue of crime in South Berkeley. The only response I received was from a School Board member who said how beneficial it was to raise children to be “street smart.” Then the council discussed crime in Berkeley recently and spent a whole lot of time celebrating that violent crime is down and discussing ways to re-assure residents that our high crime rate is only due to Part II—or so-called “quality of life” crimes like burglaries, vandalism, drugs and auto thefts. Well, we all should and do greatly appreciate the fact that our murder rate is not high, but frankly the rest of it is pretty worrisome. Let’s understand that “quality of life” crimes (but not forgetting the shootings and killings that have occurred there) are what we are talking about for the most part impacting the Oregon, Russell, California corner. My experience is that these kinds of crimes set the stage for, then define “blighted” neighborhoods, and eventually greater violence.  

The 1610 Oregon St. neighborhood is a model of diversity—racial, age, backgrounds and interests. People live here in neat, modest single-family homes. Most work, pay their taxes and mortgages, and send their children to Berkeley’s public schools. Neighborhoods like this one are the backbone of any community. What residents in this neighborhood want, exactly like all of us, are things like being able to enjoy a peaceful night’s sleep, to sit comfortably on their porches, to work or play safely in their yards, to interact peaceably with their neighbors, to sit by their windows in the security of their homes, and to walk unafraid to the store, school or park. For more than 20 years the fulfillment of these basics of every day life have been denied to them with many of the problems having a direct connection with one property in the 1600 block of Oregon.  

At various times, some have claimed that: 1) this problem should be settled by everyone sitting down and having a friendly chat; 2) the elderly woman who owns the house either doesn’t know what is going on there or is so busy caring for her frail husband and big family, working at a part-time job, and doing good works that she can’t control what is happening; 3) the owner is doing everything she can to cure the problems but she is neither responsible for problems in and around her home nor for what occurs in the neighborhood; 4) the real purpose of the neighbors is they just won’t accept that diversity means different cultures doing different things; or 5) the small claims court process violates the owner’s constitutional rights. Probably the most outrageous of all is that statement that complaining neighbors should simply move if they don’t like what is happening! 

It’s true that everything that goes on in the area can’t be attributed to that one address, but look at just some of what is documented by the city and courts as being connected. Multiple police calls, raids, and arrests at that address for drug related activities over many years right up to even just few weeks ago. A Berkeley police officer stated in recent sworn testimony that drug activity in the area was operated and controlled from this address. A court ruling in 1992 awarded some 30 neighbors $155,000 in compensation for the “nuisance” caused by drug dealing at the address, a judgment that was appealed and upheld by a higher court. Payment was avoided by transferring title of the house and declaring bankruptcy. The home of the lead plaintiff in that case was later firebombed by unknown persons. A resident of the house was shot and killed around the corner of the home. Surrounding properties have used condoms, bullets and needles thrown into their yards by persons who are coming and going from the house. Neighbors are disturbed late at night even when windows are tightly closed, by noise that comes from the house. Five years ago there was so much of a problem with visible deterioration of the home and so many cars, machinery, and trash on the property that the city did an inspection and found 22 code violations that were so serious that not only were repairs ordered but the building had to be vacated while they were made. The repairs were made but not without incident in which the contractor had his jaw broken in an altercation at the site. Charges were not pressed when the contractor did not identify his assailant.  

A pattern was established of things getting better for a while, but then reverting back to the same old, same old. The length of time this problem has persisted, flying bullets and shouted threats ought to be enough proof that this is not just an annoying neighborhood spat. To put it mildly, the claim that the owners of the property in question were unaware of the problems is simply unbelievable what with shootings, police raids, the various legal actions and paying for the attorneys to represent them in court and undertaking various property transactions.  

The claim that the small claims court process is some violation of constitutional rights stretches the imagination. It’s been on the books for many years and has been used many times in Berkeley mostly by renters against landlords who refuse to deal with noisy, drug dealing tenants. Throughout the years, I’ve never heard a single word from any civil rights advocate, community activist or newspaper about the process being in violation of anyone’s constitutional rights. It most recently was used by neighbors fed up with the activities at the student co-op, Chateau.  

Even the claim that filing restraining orders against the owner’s own family is proof that the owner is doing everything possible to correct the situation is misleading because those restraining orders were not filed until after the current small claims action was filed. When one of the people who was under such an order was found to be in violation, the police officer noted in his written report that he was told by the owner that she didn’t want the order enforced! There is no question that the owner, for whatever reason, cannot deal with the problem.  

Neighbors have three choices: they can move away, sit back and try and ignore it or come together to reclaim their neighborhood. These neighbors, none of whom are new to the area, of different ages and backgrounds, chose the brave course of trying to reclaim their neighborhood and “brave” is what they have had to be. They’ve been called names, photographed when leaving the courthouse after testifying in court, endured glares, comments, threats and people sitting on their front stairs. One even had his employer asked to review his activity as a plaintiff in the case!  

My heart went out to them as I sat in court and heard their statements given under oath about what they had endured. Powerful statements were made by parents who told of how the innocence of their young children had been stolen by what was happening on their street. One asked in anguished tones what kind of father am I that I can’t protect my child in her own yard. An older woman told of how her once peaceful and pleasant neighborhood had been shattered by the drug trade. A mother who had helped her daughter buy her house told how she now feared just sitting at a table near a window that looked out on the street. People told about how they cannot even walk down the sidewalk or how they could not even invite people to their homes. 

Well, we didn’t get the court’s answer on Nov. 28, so that won’t be the end of the story. The question remains for the rest of us: If we want Berkeley to remain a city of diversity, how can we ensure that every neighborhood is one where people can live in comfort and safety? The question is as simple as that. We read about stronger answers coming from other cities, but hear only silence from ours. It is time that we asked our city to step up to dealing with these problems and to do it now. When one neighborhood goes down, we all lose something because our City is no stronger than all of its neighborhood parts. We once maintained that Berkeley was a city of neighborhoods, yet everyday we hear of those neighborhoods being under attack. It is time to put our money and our policies into preserving and protecting our valuable and basic assets, our neighborhoods.  


Shirley Dean is the former mayor of Berkeley.