Stepped up police patrols, trimmed-back bushes and increased efforts to clean up graffiti around Strawberry Creek Park are among a slew of recent steps by the city following two troubling incidents in March, including a drive-by shooting nearby and the violent robbery of a Berkeley middle school student.
Community members around the West Berkeley park have been asking for help from the city to make changes. They cite frequent problems in the area related in part to its use as a hang-out by youth — including many who reportedly have gang ties. Drug sales and the smoking of marijuana at all hours are said to be regular sights.
Police have been called to the park, which runs from Addison Street to south of Bancroft Way just west of Bonar Street, numerous times since November. A variety of incidents have been reported: from drive-by shootings and robberies to ongoing problems with gang graffiti on buildings in the vicinity. And it’s not the first time the area has been a source of concern. In 2012, neighbors rallied after two shootings nearby — which both involved multiple victims — that led to community meetings and grassroots attempts to get organized to combat the violence.
Recently, Councilman Darryl Moore (District 2) called for a meeting with several city staffers, who are involved with local parks or work at the police department, to come up with potential solutions to cut down on crime and improve conditions.
“I’ve been getting a lot of calls about groups of kids smoking marijuana,” said Moore on Thursday. “A lot of people use the park, but residents have been telling me they don’t always feel safe.”
Police have identified the area around Strawberry Creek Park repeatedly in recent months as a known hang-out for gang members. In late February, police arrested two men identified as gang members after they allegedly hurled bottles at an officer patrolling nearby. Approximately two weeks later, just west of the park, several males identified by police as gang members allegedly punched a teenager and robbed him of his cell phone. In late March, a drive-by shooting upset local residents; police haven’t publicly identified the culprits as gang members or otherwise.
The neighborhood was also featured in a rap video posted earlier this year that promotes gang activity, drug use and violence.
Moore and his aide Ryan Lau met with Parks Recreation & Waterfront superintendent Susan Ferrara, parks director Scott Ferris and two representatives from the Berkeley Police Department — Capt. Erik Upson and Sgt. Spencer Fomby — to walk through the park recently to identify problems they could try to fix.
Among their recommendations: trimming back low bushes and other vegetation to open up ground-level views into the park; replacing a light post at the basketball court that had been taken down and ensuring that existing lights are in working order; working with property owners and city staff to paint over graffiti promptly; installing several new trash bins; and considering the removal of two little-used community bulletin boards that tend to attract graffiti.
Many of those steps have taken place since the meeting, though Moore spotted new graffiti on the back of the Berkeley Youth Alternatives building, which abuts the park, during a brief walk Thursday. (He said he would report it promptly and was confident it would be addressed.)
Moore said his office is also investigating what it might take to get pedestrian lighting, which could potentially be paid for with Measure WW money, installed along the park’s pathways to increase safety. And he plans to look into the possibility of getting cameras installed on at least one nearby building to help discourage criminal activity and help identify those responsible for causing problems.
Recent rap video disturbs residents, officials
In recent months, some residents became concerned after seeing a rap music video, posted online on YouTube in February, that was shot in part on Bonar Street and promotes gang activity, drug use and violence.
Moore said he saw the video about two weeks ago, and had been “shocked” by its contents and “how brazen it was.”
“It’s celebrating all the wrong things,” he said.
Moore forwarded the video to police, who told him they were already aware of it and knew many of the people featured in it. Moore said police also told him that many of the youth who are causing problems in the area grew up in Berkeley but have since moved out — though that hasn’t stopped them from returning to hang out in the park and its environs.
Bonar Street, at Allston Way, appears prominently in the rap video. Moore said the block of Bonar south of Allston is one of the “top three” problem blocks in his West Berkeley district.
He said the city has been working hard in recent years to reach out to property owners on the block to make physical adjustments — such as adding gates or doors on buildings to increase security — and also to pursue Section 8 contract violations to remove tenants who seem to be “causing major problems.”
But some property owners have been more receptive to those ideas than others, said Moore. There have been definite successes as a result, he added, but substantial room for improvement remains.
Gangs, graffiti, problematic properties, drug use among most common problems
Local residents and frequent visitors to the area have written to Berkeleyside, as well as in its comment section, to share concerns about the prevalent graffiti, as well as issues related to partying in the park, drug sales, abandoned vehicles, weapons, acts of violence, negligent landlords, apparent gang activity and other problems.
In the past, residents have complained about slow response times to deal with local blight and behavioral issues, and a seeming lack of concern by the city.
“The Berkeley Youth Alternatives (BYA) building and mural are routinely tagged,” wrote one Berkeleyside reader, who identified as a park neighbor, last fall. “Tables in the park are routinely repainted by a neighbor who keeps a supply of paint in order to maintain the park. While the park’s appearance is one thing, the violence is of course the more serious issue. Sure wish there was some sign that the city cared. I am guessing the recurring dice games and graffiti would not be tolerated in playgrounds in the hills.”
One resident said this week, however, that he’s seen at least one sign of progress — albeit likely a temporary one — in that the building on the southeast corner of Bonar and Allston has remained graffiti-free for several weeks, since it was last painted over. In the past, he said, new tags tended to be slung back up within a couple days of cleaning.
Residents have said, previously, they believed local authorities and officials have tried to minimize the gang issue in Berkeley, and have resisted acknowledging it in public settings.
Moore said this week that Berkeley Police officers he has talked with appear to be well informed about the gang problem, and added that he has appreciated that the department has been “recognizing and verbalizing that gangs exist.”
The community needs to do more work to provide positive opportunities for local youth, said Moore, but must also not hesitate to continue to crack down on people involved with gangs or other criminal activity.
In the wake of the recent violence, police stepped up patrols in the neighborhood to try to discourage incidents of crime. Berkeley Police Lt. Dave Frankel — who oversees public safety in West Berkeley — said, however, that while that approach can work in the short term, police don’t have the resources to allocate those units indefinitely. Residents need to be proactive about reporting problems to police, he said, if they want continued action.
Moore said he feels optimistic about a new campaign underway by the Berkeley Police Department to reshape its beat map to redeploy its limited resources around the city, and is hopeful there will be more officers in West Berkeley as a result. (Moore is in the process of planning a community meeting to collect feedback about that plan, which will be considered by council in coming months.)
And he said he wants to see the community and city work together to continue to better the park, which he described Thursday afternoon as “in fairly good shape.” Members of the public walked their dogs, cycled over sun-lit gently-rolling pathways, and sat by the creek as it gurgled beneath verdant trees. The mood was peaceful and the park’s facilities were tidy and inviting.
But the play area — with its popular slide — was nearly empty, perhaps due to the time of day. And several young visitors were indeed smoking marijuana in the park where it intersects with Allston Way.
“These need to be sustained efforts,” Moore said. “I don’t want to see the improvements or the energy go away in a few months.”
Teen punched during robbery by Berkeley gang members (03.31.14)
Police on 3 shootings: ‘Responding to these incidents is our top priority’ (03.28.14)
Police respond to shooting in West Berkeley (03.25.14)
Neighbors talk surveillance, robberies, code enforcement at community meeting (03.07.14)
Gang members arrested after hurling bottles at police (02.25.14)
Teen arrested after cell phone robbery in Berkeley (01.31.14)
Teen arrested after robbery tied to medical cannabis buy (12.12.13)
Shots fired early Saturday near West Berkeley park (11.02.13)
Berkeley residents tackle safety issues after shootings (03.21.12)
Community meeting called in wake of Berkeley shootings (03.13.12)
Three men shot, wounded early Sunday in West Berkeley (03.05.12)
3 people shot on Bonar Street, no life-threatening injuries (03.02.12)
Neighbors fight to save Strawberry Creek Park slide (12.02.11)
Berkeley youth program gets temporary reprieve (07.01.11)
Crime prevention top of mind for Berkeley community (05.05.11)
Get the latest Berkeley news in your inbox with Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing. And make sure to bookmark Berkeleyside’s pages on Facebook and Twitter. You don’t need an account on those sites to view important information.