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Tot Lot Neighbor Hit with Restraining Order

By Judith Scherr
Friday December 21, 2007

Neighbors of the Becky Temko Tot Lot on Roosevelt Street claimed victory on Thursday after Commissioner Jon Rantzman granted a three-year restraining order against Art Maxwell, a tot lot neighbor accused of harassing park users. 

The hearing was at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse in Oakland. 

The restraining order covers not only the 14 parents, grandparents and caregivers granted a temporary restraining order last month, but includes all park users, according to park neighbor Justin Skoble, who attended the hearing. 

The order says that Maxwell cannot be within five yards of people at the park, nor can he play music into the park—he had been putting his boom box up against the park fence, Skoble said. 

If he breaks the rules of the restraining order, he can be cited, Skoble said. 


Whoever dreamed up the term “pocket park” must have had Becky Temko Tot Park in mind.  

The snug space on Roosevelt Street, a park since 1971, is shoehorned into a long, narrow swath of land, with residences close to the park on the north, south and west. Toward the front of the lot, there is a brightly-painted tot-sized structure of ladders and slides from which children tumble out onto sand; at the back is a grassy area where families can sit and snack on goldfish crackers and juice. 

Ideal for little people and their caregivers, the shouts of children at play and inevitable cries when one bruises a knee are a source of grief for Maxwell, a veteran jazz saxaphone and flute player who, according to his wife Mimi Chin, became disabled two years ago and now needs rest and peace the tot lot does not accord him. 

Neighbors say Maxwell, who has lived next to the tot lot for 15 years, has reacted to the children’s noise by playing loud obscene music, shattering glass bottles against his fence, and threatening children and adults. This behavior began about 18 months ago, they said. 

They have gotten temporary restraining orders against him, and at the end of November filed a criminal complaint. Deputy District Attorney Marty Brown told the Planet Thursday that he is reviewing the case and has asked the Berkeley Police Department to submit more information in order to decide whether or how to charge Maxwell. 

On Monday, the Roosevelt Street neighbors sought help from the City Council, which met behind closed doors to consider how they might address the situation. (At the council session, the body discussed putting together an ordinance to blunt antisocial behavior in parks, but took no specific action.) 

Some 20 adults and five children attended the open portion of the closed meeting, asking the council for help in taking back their neighborhood park. 

Art Maxwell’s wife Mimi Chin also attended and spoke frankly about the situation. “I see a community that is injured, fractured. [The neighbors] are good people,” she said, adding, “Art is a good person, too.”  

Chin went on to explain that her husband had suffered a head injury in the workplace. “He’s a disabled person trying to live in peace and quiet in his own home,” she said. 

A Dec. 17 letter to the council, written on behalf of nearby residents and signed by neighbors Nina Ziskin, Trisha Cruse and John Callaway, says, in part: “We are sympathetic to [Maxwell’s] suffering, but do not think that closing the park to an entire community is an acceptable solution. We are also concerned that his emotional instability may become so severe that he will actually hurt himself or someone else.” 

Hal Reynolds, grandfather of two of the children attending the Monday meeting, described some of the behavior to the council. Maxwell “blasted obscene gangsta rap at the kids,” he said.  

Reynolds called police and made a citizen’s arrest November 28. In an interview with the Planet Wednesday, Reynolds alleged that Maxwell brandished a pipe wrench at him, after Reynolds accused Maxwell of removing a plastic playhouse he had placed in the park. 

Reynolds said Maxwell was given a citation for disturbing the peace, vandalism to property and exhibiting threatening beha-vior. It is now up to the district attorney whether he will charge Maxwell with criminal activity. Several city officials have written the district attorney supporting allegations of Maxwell’s inappropriate behavior, including Mayor Tom Bates, Councilmember Dona Spring and Acting Parks Director William Rogers. 

“There have been 45 reported incidents [involving Maxwell] since the beginning of the year,” Reynolds told the council. “We really need the city to do something.”  

In a letter to District Attorney Thomas Orloff, Spring wrote that Maxwell was likely in need of psychological help, but had refused services offered by the city. She wrote the D.A. that Maxwell had left angry and threatening messages on her answering machine saying, “’I’m about to lose it,’” “‘I am sick of it,’” and “‘I’ll step up the fever pitch.’” 

At the meeting Chin spoke about problems at the park other than the little children—drug dealing, smoking and teen sex. In a phone interview with the Planet Thursday, she underscored these problems, saying police ignore them. 

In a phone interview Wednesday Acting Parks Director Rogers told the Planet his goal was to “insure a safe place for the public to use the park” and that it is important to separate the two kinds of complaints. “Illegal activity in the park is not the same as children playing,” he said.  

Rogers said the city has placed a sign on the gate: “Please be courteous to neighbors; be aware of sound levels while enjoying the park.” The city could also help by building an eight-foot fence, he said. 

The city has attempted to provide mediation services, but neighbors said Maxwell refused to participate. Chin told the Planet that Maxwell didn’t think the mediation would lead to a solution. 

Neighbor Zach Walton, who worked to get the temporary restraining order against Maxwell, spoke to the council, saying Maxwell “doesn’t have a right to harass, especially a right to harass small children.” 

He called on the council to write an ordinance that would prohibit the kind of behavior Maxwell exhibited. 

Michael Jones, another musician who is Maxwell’s friend and observed the park scene when he painted the Maxwell-Chin house, called the Planet to lend support. “He comes out and just wants them to be quiet,” Jones said, arguing that the lot would be better suited to low income housing than a park.  

Jones underscored that Maxwell has a right to enjoy the quiet of his home. “His rights are not being respected,” Jones said.