West Berkeley neighbors say they hope the recent police raid of a notorious drug den will finally clear the drug dealers and loiterers from a long-blighted intersection.
“It’s been hell living here with guys hanging out on the corner dealing drugs, shooting dice, throwing their trash everywhere,” said one neighbor, who—like every neighbor interviewed—refused to give his name for fear of reprisal.
The corner of Ninth Street and Allston Way has long been an epicenter of drug peddling and loitering. But neighbors said this year has been the worst in recent memory, and they claim the corner house at 2135 Ninth Ave. has served as the clubhouse and refuge for the dealers that plague their neighborhood.
“Until that house is vacated I don’t see how the corner will really be clean,” said one neighbor, who added he would drive his children to a friend’s house a few blocks away just so they wouldn’t have to cross the corner.
After months of surveillance, police executed a search warrant Tuesday at the house, arresting four 19-year-old Berkeley residents for possession of marijuana with intent to sell. Only one of those arrested—Thirland Ross, one of the owner’s sons—lived at the house.
That is telling, said neighbors, who have complained that the house has been the scene of an endless, raucous party, with strangers driving up to the home, blasting souped-up car stereos and otherwise making noise into the early morning.
“One night they had boxing matches in the street,” a neighbor said. “There were about 40 guys in a circle surrounding two guys fighting with gloves on.”
Neighbors turned to police, but since Berkeley does not have an anti-loitering law, officers could not order the men off the corner unless they were seen breaking the law.
The house had garnered such a reputation that one city official said that people arrested for drug sales often claimed the house as their residence even though they didn’t live there.
The home belongs to James Ross and his six children. Drug dealing at their corner predates Ross’ arrival on the block more than fifteen years ago, but neighbors said that since the death of his wife last year, Ross, despite numerous city and community interventions, has been unable to control what goes on at his house.
The city could move to seize the property, but Michael Caplan of the city’s Problem Property Team said he would rather solve the problem through mediation.
“Our job is not to get people out of their house,” he said, adding that not all the problems at the property were the fault of Mr. Ross, who works in Berkeley and is not able to keep tabs on everything happening at the home.
The city has facilitated meetings between Ross, his minister—Pastor Gordon Choyce of the Missionary Church of God in Christ—and Councilmember Margaret Breland, but the problems continued.
Neighbors said that drug dealing at the corner has been cyclical.
After a police sweep last May netted 20 arrests, the block was quiet, but by winter, dealing and loitering resumed, with Ross’ house again serving as a safehaven where dealers could use the bathroom and hang out.
The situation grew violent this past spring and summer.
On April 27, an arsonist set fire to the home of a neighbor who had complained about activity on the corner. Then on July 4, a M-80 firecracker set inside a porchlight shattered the front window of another vocal neighbor.
Neighbors blamed the men hanging out on the street, but police have not linked them to the crimes.
Police did work with neighbors who called in reports of drug dealing, while police conducted surveillance. Ultimately their work resulted in a search warrant for Marques Hill, his car, and Ross’ house—where Hill was known to hang out.
Police executed the warrant at 2 p.m. Tuesday arresting Hill, Lawrence Williams, Sherman Montgomery and Thirland Ross for possession of marijuana with intent to sell. Although neighbors say they have seen crack dealing at the corner, police found no trace of it at the house.
Neighbors hope that the sting will usher in a new era of calm to the corner.
Wednesday night police officers in two black-and-white patrol cars manned the corner, discouraging anyone from hanging out there, and there was no sign of the five or six men one neighbor said would typically have been loitering there.
City officials and community members are still working with Ross to rid his home of outsiders that Caplan said have taken advantage of him.
“All indications from [Ross] to me is that he is not contributing to the situation,” said Pastor Choyce. “What we say back to him is if you’re not contributing, you need to be more proactive.” Ross did not respond to his door bell last night for an interview.
If Ross does not clean up his property, he may face multiple lawsuits. Caplan said about 20 neighbors have threatened to sue Ross in small claims court for creating a nuisance. If they all won $5,000 claims, Ross could face a lien on his property.
A few years ago a woman on the corner of Tenth Street and Allston faced similar charges and ultimately was pressured to sell her house.
Choyce said Ross had recently agreed to go to Berkeley Dispute Resolution Services to work with neighbors.
Some neighbors seemed open to the idea. “The ideal solution is to have a nice community with him here,” said one neighbor. “No one has a personal vendetta against him.”