The Hill From Hell 

First mud, then lawyers: A neighborhood drama in five acts.

Act I. The Hill Comes Down

At center stage, a decimated Oakland hillside. At its base, three houses owned by the Gong family. Above, on Wallace Street, three houses are beginning to crumble.

It is February of 2002, a particularly wet winter. A massive chunk of the rain-soaked slope has fallen away from behind the three uphill houses, destroying their backyards and leaving an eighteen-foot drop-off. Soil pushing down the hill has created a mound eight feet tall at the point closest to the Gongs' properties, and two of the uphill buildings jut out five feet over the escarpment. A rear addition on one already has peeled off and tumbled down the hill. City officials have red-tagged the three uphill homes, forcing everyone out, and engineers are warning that there is danger of a second slide.

None of the Gongs saw the hill come crashing down — they just remember getting warning calls from neighbors, hurrying home, and finding television crews and passersby gawking at the spectacle in their backyard. The odds that a three-home landslide would rain down on three houses owned by the same family seemed incredible. "If I bought a lottery ticket I wouldn't be that lucky," says family matriarch Ying Gong.

Until that February, the Gong family had indeed been lucky, but it was the kind of luck that comes from hard work. For nearly forty years, the parents ran a tiny convenience store in the shadow of Oakland's Highland Hospital. They were beloved neighborhood fixtures, particularly the rosy-cheeked, wavy-haired Ying, whom customers nicknamed "Mrs. Highland" after the store's original name, Highland Grocery, or "Maggie" for reasons no one can quite pin down. In typical mom-'n'-pop-shop fashion, they lived in the apartment behind their store. Their four kids helped run it, stocking the shelves, mopping the floors, and delivering to housebound customers. Because Ying always seemed to be behind the counter, neighbors left things in her care: house keys in case they locked themselves out, money so their kids could stop by after school for a snack. "It wasn't just a business," says Greg Gong, her eldest son. "It was a form of friendship. My mom knew everybody."

The store is an anchor in this working-class residential neighborhood, which seems caught between two epochs of Oakland history. Teenagers propel their bass-thumping rides along tree-lined streets; blue light from giant TVs flickers inside faded Craftsman homes. ER-bound ambulances scream through at all hours. Every now and then there's a wayward rooster.

From their shop, the Gongs watched generations of neighbors grow up and move away. Sometimes they offered to sell their houses to the Gongs. The self-employed family believed Bay Area real estate was a safe retirement investment. "That was our IRA," says James Gong, Ying's husband, a vigorous man with close-cropped hair. "We put the money back in the neighborhood. We didn't take it someplace else."

Now in their seventies, the parents still live in the first house they bought, an early-20th-century bungalow directly across from their shop on 14th Avenue. When their next-door neighbor, a close friend, was widowed, she offered to sell them her house. Later the Gongs bought the one next to that, making it three in a row. Then came a couple of others, until they owned five houses, plus the store.

The couple sold the family business and retired in late 2001. They'd paid off the mortgages on the three adjacent 14th Avenue properties and planned to live in one, funding their retirement with rent from the others. Like most of the houses on their side of the street, theirs were nestled into the base of the aforementioned hill. Above, carved into the hill's belly, is Wallace Street, a narrow alley lined with residences. The Gongs, avid gardeners, had terraced their portion of the slope and used it to grow a profusion of produce: loquats, lemons, grapefruits, pumpkins, which they hoped to spend some of their new leisure time tending. Yet what should have been a lovely retirement lasted only a few months.

Enter the landslide.

Following that disastrous day in February, the Gongs knew their first step would be to find out who owned the properties now crumbling toward their nest egg. Little did they know that the wreckage would still be sitting there virtually untouched more than five years later, even as the uphill homes decayed into traffic-stopping eyesores. Nor that the slide and its aftermath would propel the couple, with their limited English literacy, into a bureaucratic maze involving county courts and city government agencies. They had just been cast in the lead roles in a drama that was about to consume their lives.

Act II. Rising Tensions

The dramatis personae: Jason Griffin, then a 21-year-old construction worker, owned the easternmost of the three Wallace Street houses, a modest brown two-story where he lived with a few friends. He was proud of being a first-time homeowner, and had already poured $40,000 into rehabbing the building, hoping to eventually trade up.

The ownership of the westernmost parcel was less clear. It was actually two buildings on one lot, rental units painted swimming-pool aquamarine. On paper, the property belonged to a family trust named after a San Leandro couple, Alan and Angela Au-Yeung. It was managed by the couple's son, Humphrey Lau, whom the Au-Yeungs would later claim was the true owner.

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