Bruce McMurray and Vicki Wade stand along the LeRoy Steps, which they have spent years improving. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Five years ago the steps leading from Hilgard Avenue down to LeRoy were a tangled mess, ill lit, broken in spots, and dotted with graffiti. Scraggly trees and brambles grew unrestrained along the steps’ borders.

Then a group of neighbors got together, and, with hard work and the assistance of funding from the city and UC Berkeley, transformed the steps into an inviting path. New lights now illuminate the walkway, and every March hundreds of daffodils push their way to the surface, creating a yellow burst of color.

“Several years ago it was just a dump,” said City Councilmember Susan Wengraf. “It was overgrown, strewn with garbage, basically abandoned by the city. Over time it really became transformed from a very unattractive place to quite a beautiful place.”

The LeRoy Steps have been a source of civic pride, garnering their supporters many accolades and a proclamation from the city. But they have also become a source of civic controversy. A neighborhood dispute about the rehabilitation of the stairs has led to numerous police visits, an outburst of anger by one resident that prompted him to rip out thousands of dollars worth of foliage, and the arrest of another for battery for trying to stop him. There have also been accusations that City Hall favors one side over the other and has used its influence to help that faction.

The furor surrounding the steps is an example of how minor neighborhood arguments can escalate into serious controversies that poison the atmosphere of a community.

“Neighborhood feuds are fairly common,” said Shar Etebar, the executive director of SEEDS Community Resolution Center, who said his organization gets about 40 calls a month about neighborhood disputes. “It’s quite a regular part of daily life.”

The current flash point in this neighborhood feud centers around the stairs, but it has its genesis in an August 2008 application from Helen Alvarez, the proprietor of The Big Orange House day care center at 1666 LeRoy Avenue. Alvarez, daughter of famed physicist Luis Alvarez, wanted to expand the number of children permitted to come to her center from eight toddlers to 14 children.

She filed an application with the city and soon learned that a number of neighbors on Hilgard opposed the expansion. They thought the extra kids would bring in additional cars and disturb the peace of the tree-lined, residential neighborhood.

“The sound of squabbling children at play and an adult female trying, oft-times without much success, to cajole young children to be cooperative has been a constant straining annoyance,” Bruce McMurray, who lives on Hilgard, wrote to the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board in July of 2008.

Alvarez and her husband, Andrew Harth, a sculptor who lives in a house across the street from his wife and three children, had already had run-ins with some of the neighbors who opposed the expansion. Throughout the years, some residents on Hilgard had complained about Harth’s house, which had been a never-ending construction project for 15 years. Many neighbors considered it an eyesore. There had also been clashes about the trees in his backyard.

But Harth and Alvarez, who was pregnant with their third child at the time, were taken aback by the tone and vehemence of the reaction against the daycare center. They grew worried that the neighborhood opposition would thwart their plans to expand. The family relied on the childcare business as its main source of income, since a skateboarding business Harth was involved in had gone under in 2007.

“We were desperate to make our business work,” said Harth. “We were not prepared for the neighborhood opposition.”

Andrew Harth and Helen Alvarez with one of their sons

The county and the city approved Alvarez’s application in the fall of 2008, but Alvarez and Harth’s feelings about being undermined by their neighbors did not go away. Then a new issue arose: McMurray, who was one of the neighbors who had written a letter opposing the expansion of the day care center,  started to appear outside Alvarez’s house at all hours, according to the couple. He usually started by sweeping the LeRoy Steps, but worked his way down to the sidewalk to right in front of the entrance of  Alvarez’s business, The Big Orange House. His presence was nerve-wracking.

“Once he started [sweeping], it was every single day. It was just creepy,” said Harth.

The situation put Harth so on edge that on October 7, 2008 he ran out of the house when he saw McMurray on the steps and started screaming at him and another Hilgard Avenue resident, Vicki Wade. When Harth virtually chased them up the stairs, neighbors called the police, the first of many times cops would be asked to mediate.

It was around this time that McMurray and Wade started to work hard to beautify the LeRoy Steps. They formed the LeRoy Steps Stewardship Project and spent weekends and their spare time ripping out the weeds and plants that had been permitted to grow untended in the 15-foot borders on both sides of the steps. They organized planting days for the neighborhood, and, over time, planted more than 600 daffodil bulbs around the area.

Since the steps are used by Cal students on their way to campus and events at the Greek Theater and Memorial Stadium, the stewardship project and the UC Berkeley police department jointly applied in 2010 for a Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund grant to improve pedestrian safety by installing new lighting on the path. The $7,160 grant, along with $1,500 from PG&E and $500 from Wengraf’s office, allowed McMurray’s group to install new lights that resembled the old gaslights that once lit the 101-year old steps. The city also repaired nearby sidewalks.

“So many people have mentioned they are no longer fearful when walking the steps in the evening time,” said McMurray, who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years.

The city of Berkeley issued a proclamation Nov. 18, 2008 honoring McMurray and Wade for their work on the LeRoy Steps.

Once Alvarez’s expansion was approved, McMurray said he and Wade moved on and didn’t think more about the childcare business. But Alvarez and Harth did not forget and continued to feel that a powerful neighborhood group wanted to undermine their livelihood. Many of those who signed letters opposing the expansion of the childcare center were also involved with the steps’ beautification project.

Harth and Alvarez also got upset that McMurray and the stewardship group never consulted them about what should be done about the 15-foot border on the west side of the steps. It is owned by the city, but residents who live next to the steps have an easement and are responsible for its upkeep. Wade, in fact, had erected a wooden fence along the east side of the steps, creating a personal area out of what officially was city land. Alvarez’s orange house on LeRoy abutted the steps, so the family felt proprietary about what should happen to the area.

In July 2011, Harth and Alvarez applied for a restraining order to keep McMurray away from their houses. Harth said McMurray not only swept frequently in front of the childcare center – even though the sidewalk was clean – but he had started to hang out in front of Harth’s house during a class for the couple’s homeschooled children. Alameda County Superior Court declined to issue a restraining order against McMurray, who said he was “flabbergasted” when he recently discovered that the couple had gone to court. He said he never intimidated the couple.

“Never did I sweep in front of their house,” said McMurray. “Andrew kept it swept. There was no reason for me to go there and sweep in front of his house. I just wouldn’t do that.”

In September 2011, the feud erupted further, highlighting that the bad blood between Harth and Alvarez on LeRoy and McMurray and Wade and other neighbors on Hilgard had not gone away.

On the morning of September 19, Harth went out of his house and started to rip up dozens of plants that had been planted by the LeRoy Steps Stewardship Project. He took a shovel to dig out the greenery and dumped the plants in the back of his truck.

“What I was communicating when I pulled up those plants is my family needs a buffer between us and the people who are mad at us,” said Harth. “We have no boundaries [around our property]. The city is not going to defend our boundaries. We were on the defense until I pulled up those plants. That was the first aggressive thing I have done.”

When local residents saw Harth deliberately destroying the plants that had taken months and many thousands of dollars to install, they rushed outside to try and stop him. One neighbor, Mark Selvaggio, went up to Harth and tried to pull the shovel out of his hands. But his action caused Harth to fall, and Harth got injured when his shoulder struck a boulder.

Both Alvarez and other neighbors called police, who rushed to the scene. Selvaggio was arrested and is facing charges of battery.

Neighbors around Hilgard have started a fund to raise money for Selvaggio’s legal defense, said Wade. The donations have been generous.

“I hope the court case against Mark will be thrown out,” said Wengraf. “It was a terrible accident. He didn’t strike him. He tried to grab the shovel. Andrew lost his footing and fell down. He meant to get the shovel away from him because Andrew was digging up all these plants. He was basically destroying all this work they had done over five years. Mark was trying to stop it. Mark feels very bad about it.”

Harth and Alvarez feel doubly victimized, they said, because Wengraf so clearly supports the side of the LeRoy Steps Stewardship Project and does not seem to understand that they feel like the neighborhood tried to take away their livelihood. The perception was recently strengthened when the city decided to take out some redwood trees along the LeRoy Steps, trees that were right outside Alvarez’s front door. The family and their three young children loved the trees and decorated them at Halloween and Christmas.

“I have three little kids,” said Harth. “There were three little trees. We hung decorations there for Halloween and Christmas. They were in my easement.”

City officials decided, however, that the redwoods were inappropriate for the LeRoy Steps. They gave potential assailants a place to hide and they were undermining a retaining wall, said Wengraf.

McMurray wrote to Berkeley’s parks department to suggest that the trees be removed, according to an Aug. 25, 2011 email by Daniel Gallagher, a senior forestry manager for Berkeley.

The first Harth and Alvarez knew about the tree removal was in September, when a city crew showed up to cut them down. Berkeley’s tree ordinance requires that the city inform nearby neighbors in writing two weeks before they intend to take down a tree.  The city did not do that.

Harth and Alvarez rushed out to meet the city workers and convinced them not to chop down the trees.

City workers appeared again a few days later, and once again Harth and Alvarez convinced them to back off.

But on Oct. 27, 2011 at 7 am, city workers showed up again. This time they were accompanied by three police officers. Within a few minutes, the workers had cut down the redwood trees.

The redwood trees right next to Alvarez's Little Orange House
The stumps of the cutdown redwood trees

Alvarez and Harth see the hand of McMurray, backed by Wengraf, in the cutting down of the redwood trees.

“I begged Bruce not to cut down the trees,” said Alvarez.  “They became a target because I expressly said I cared about them. It was horrific. It was an attack. It was against me, about my business. It was about nothing else.”

Sue Ferrara, the superintendent of city parks, declined to state why police were sent to accompany the city workers cutting down the redwood trees. She also denied that the city violated its own policies by not informing Alvarez and Harth in writing about the impending removal of the redwood trees.

“We contact people on a case by case basis,” said Ferrara. “We don’t mail people all the time. It’s a city tree. If we need to remove a tree, we remove a tree.”

A worker at the city parks department who did not identify herself said that there was a “special circumstance” why the trees were taken down.

Harth and Alvarez believe that Wengraf’s office, pushed by McMurray, encouraged the city to remove the trees, a charge that Wengraf denies. She said she “doesn’t have that kind of power.”

Wengraf is stumped why Harth and Alvarez continue to feel as if there is a neighborhood conspiracy against them.

“The childcare thing needs to be put to rest,” said Wengraf. “It is no longer an issue but it continues to be an issue with them. I don’t know why they can’t let it go. [The neighborhood] is not out to get them.”

McMurray agrees.

“I have no anger towards them,” he said. “It seems to be 100% the other way around, although I am annoyed that Andrew ripped out all the landscaping the stewardship had been doing.”

Wengraf would like to bring in SEEDS or another group to mediate the dispute between the LeRoy faction and the Hilgard faction. So far her suggestions to do that have not been acted on.

“Everyone would like to feel more comfortable about the situation,” said Wengraf. “There are now people who are afraid to walk down the steps because they are afraid of Andrew. I wouldn’t want him screaming at me. It happened once. I wouldn’t want it to happen again.”

On Oct. 30, McMurry, Wade and the LeRoy Steps Stewardship Project had a “Rejuvenation and Replanting Day.” The goal was to plant a Japanese maple near where the old redwood trees stood, and replace some of the plants that Harth ripped out in September. About a dozen people came to the work party, shared food and tasks, and spent time beautifying the steps. The flyer announcing the event stated “The City of Berkeley applauds all the efforts were are making happen along this neighborhood path.”

Harth and Alvarez did not participate.

Neighbors of the LeRoy Steps gather on Oct. 30 to plant along the steps. Photo: Jennie Fuller
The Japanese maple planted where the redwood trees used to by. Photo: Jennie Fuller
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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...