Op-ed: A catastrophe waiting to happen

College Avenue tree before and after it fell. Photos: Peter Y. Sussman (left) and John Holland on Oct. 24, 2016 (right).
The tree at College (at Alcatraz) before and after it fell. Photos: Peter Y. Sussman (left) and John Holland, on Oct. 24, 2016 (right)

The tree that crashed down on the sidewalk and one private yard and home on Monday somehow didn’t hit any pedestrians or motorists on that heavily traveled part of College Avenue. Next time we are unlikely to be that lucky.

And there will be a next time, as the stress cracks on surrounding sidewalks make clear.

Those lifted and fractured sidewalk plates — whether damaged by root growth or leaning trees — are already hazardous to pedestrians and wheelchair users, a peril about which I’ve previously alerted two city officials. The sidewalk around the tree that toppled Monday was one of a number where pronounced cracks had been evident for years, some with abrupt plate lifting of more than two inches.

Ironically, that fallen tree and the adjacent sidewalk and street were so obviously hazardous that they were among the faults I had highlighted for those officials, all within two blocks of College Avenue, near my home. I had photographed the faults around that very tree, along with others that were especially hazardous for me, as a wheelchair and walking-stick user. (The now-fallen tree is shown “in better days” in the photo top left; the sidewalk displacement on one side of the tree is visible at the base, even at the distance from which the photo was taken, but from this perspective the even-more hazardous faults on the other side, both in the street and on the sidewalk, are not visible.)

Sidewalk on College at Alcatraz. Photo: Peter Y. Sussman
Fractured and lifted sidewalk on College at Alcatraz. Photo: Peter Y. Sussman

Councilwoman Lori Droste, after touring those stretches of College with me a number of months ago, gave the addresses of adjacent homes to the appropriate departments, which patched the worst hazards — short-term patches, as it turned out. Those lifted sidewalk plates have already lifted still further, rising above the shaved corners and asphalt patches designed to make them safer. Some of the hazardous plates were located at joints where the concrete had been replaced in recent years, a fact that is also evident in one of the accompanying photos.

Although any pedestrian can trip over the raised joints, they are especially dangerous for those who are elderly and disabled, including those with impaired eyesight, and for children, skateboarders and roller-skaters. They are difficult to see from afar, especially at night.

I am especially vulnerable — a victim-in-waiting. For those who haven’t given much thought to the operation of wheelchairs, let me clarify how those sidewalk faults affect me:

The front wheels on manual wheelchairs are small in diameter, meaning it doesn’t take much of a sharp rise to upend my chair, spill me onto the sidewalk and even bend the frame of my chair. The quick-and-dirty navigational aid is to pop wheelies over each crack — and hope you see them coming — or to turn around and back over each and every crack. When I’m on that stretch of sidewalk with my grandchildren, several of them are so aware of the hazards that they run ahead of the wheelchair, calling out. “Here comes another, Daddo,” as they spot each crack.

Sidewalk on College at Alcatraz. Photo: Peter Y. Sussman
Sidewalk on College at Alcatraz. Photo: Peter Y. Sussman

Although I am particularly aware of the lifted and fractured sidewalk plates around street trees near my home, I’ve encountered similar hazards throughout the city. Shouldn’t we be averting further injuries by urgently devising better strategies for alleviating the hazards in advance of injury?

Although patching and shaving the raised corners of sidewalk plates will minimize problems immediately, they are not long-term fixes, as the continued lifting shows in the accompanying photos I’ve been taking for months.

I love the tree canopies along College and elsewhere in the city, but the city must begin to address in more creative ways the problems they cause. Aside from better choices for replacements of those massive, shallow-rooted trees, I believe officials should urgently explore larger growth allowances between the sidewalks and the trees and possible new sidewalk materials and substrata that would accommodate more root growth. At a minimum, for now, there should be more frequent and continuing inspection and amelioration.

Other new strategies are possible, I’m sure, but, in the words of Tom Lehrer (which he ascribed to Werner von Braun), “That’s not my department.” Trying to avoid injury and damage for me and other vulnerable people IS my department. Berkeley, you are forewarned: The life you save may be my own.

Sidewalk on College at Alcatraz. Photo: Peter Y. Sussman
Patched sidewalk on College at Alcatraz. Photo: Peter Y. Sussman

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Peter Y. Sussman is an author and journalist and a 50-year resident of the Elmwood District.