Public Comment

Commentary: Urban Realities Ever Present on Oakland-Berkeley Border

By Christopher Cherney
Tuesday December 05, 2006

For the past nine years, my wife and I have lived in Berkeley, on the border of Oakland. We are grateful for the many advantages that come with living in Berkeley. But it is hard to forget, even for a day, that we are living hard up against the sad realities of urban America. 

We are worried about neighborhood violence. Too frequently, we hear the toy-like pop-pop of gunshots. I have gotten into the practice of noting the time on the bedroom clock when I snap awake to the sound of gunshots in the night. Then I wait to see how long it takes before I hear the first police siren. 

More harrowing, I have learned to distinguish whether a shooter is on foot, and running toward or away from our house. If after a gun is fired I hear dogs barking louder and louder, then the shooter likely is heading our way, and I become hyper-alert. Once about six years ago at 2 a.m., two Berkeley police officers entered our yard with guns drawn, announcing their presence and pointing their flashlights. 

About four years ago, a stabbing occurred only a block away. The stabber, we heard, was taken away to a local psychiatric hospital, never to return. 

Last year a close neighbor had her car tires slashed 11 times, always late at night. The slashing ended after the presumed slasher—a near neighbor—died of a drug overdose. 

This year on July 4, a brick was thrown through the passenger-side window of our non-descript, 16-year-old car. 

The late-night car chases never are welcome. Only two years ago, a high-speed police car chase ended directly in front of our house, with the pursued criminal smashing a stolen car into three parked cars. I thought a plane had crashed. Amazingly, the driver got away on foot, outrunning the determined Berkeley police. 

We have come to respect the police. They are uniformly polite, and, when visible, comforting. I just wish they could do something to stop the blaring, thumping car stereos that incessantly ply neighborhood streets. 

There’s more. People smoke pot openly on the sidewalks. Every day we hear profane street language that often includes demeaning putdowns. I feel deeply sad when I hear those hurtful words. 

Our former roommate’s car was stolen three years ago. Four years ago our house was broken into while we slept. The intruder squeezed through a window that we have since replaced with half-inch-thick plexiglas. Miraculously we were not robbed or harmed. 

Here on the edge of Berkeley, people litter. It is common to hear a fast-food bag hit the street as it is flung out the window of a passing car. About once a month I find condoms on the sidewalk. We’re mere blocks from where prostitutes cruise San Pablo Avenue, within sight of the scores of new condos selling for $600,000 and up. 

I resonate with Berkeley’s history and complexity, and I do not shy away from the sometimes sad human parade that passes by our home. My wife and I have been here nine years, and plan to stay in our still-affordable home, raising our children, connecting to our neighbors and to our adopted city. 

Of course we’d like some things to be better. Absolutely we’d like the bullets to stop flying. And certainly we are trying to better understand the roots of the violence, crime, and human suffering that narrates much of the life of our urban Berkeley neighborhood. 


Christopher Cherney is a South Berkeley