A tree grows (and dies) in Brooklyn

By Tina Susman
New York, NY (October 15, 2009)- A New York City program to plant 1 million trees across the five boroughs has many people cheering. For others, only a Bronx cheer will do. The chain-saw killer struck in the dead of night, targeting young victims in a public park. Locals out for a Sunday walk found the remains the next morning: 12 oak and cherry saplings, their slender trunks sawed through, their delicate branches dangling like broken limbs above the freshly tilled soil.


It was the fourth tree-killing this year in Juniper Valley Park in Queens. Police went door to door looking for clues. Civic leaders offered a $2,500 reward for information leading to the culprit in the Sept. 13 attack. The case remains unresolved, as do seven other tree-slaying incidents across New York City this year.
In February, a huge cottonwood was found with a basketball-sized hole gouged in its trunk in Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Park. In June, nearly 60 young trees were yanked from the soil and left for dead in the same park, two months after being planted on Earth Day. The attacks point to a stubborn if puzzling fact: Some people really don’t like trees. Just ask the folks dedicated to planting a million of them across New York City’s five boroughs.
Since the MillionTreesNYC initiative was launched two years ago, more than 220,000 have been placed in parks, in squares carved out of sidewalks, in cemeteries and on private property- but not without loud and sometimes hostile objections.
When a crew arrived to plant a ginkgo tree on a shady block in Brooklyn, outside the brick apartment building where Marion D. Smith lives, the 79-year-old widow pleaded with them to take it elsewhere. She said she was too frail to sweep up falling leaves and berries. Besides, she said, the tree would remind her of her late husband, who died about the same time that a tree withered and died in the same spot. Smith lost the argument. Five months later, her hostility toward the frail ginkgo with its unique fan-like leaves is undiminished. “I don’t want it. I don’t like it. It can stay there and die for all I care,” Smith said.
Two trees planted in Queens were yanked from the dirt and hurled into the East River after a man complained that they were blocking his water view. People have driven cars onto sidewalks to block tree-planters. They have even used what Jennifer Greenfeld, the city Parks and Recreation Department’s director of street-tree planting, calls the Alzheimer’s Excuse. It was used by a Brooklyn woman who said her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother would not recognize their home if a tree were planted outside. “Would you say that if someone put up a new traffic light or a stop sign?” Greenfield asked incredulously. The tree went in.
Another woman called the fire department to try to block a planting crew from drilling into the sidewalk outside her home, insisting they would hit a gas line. When officials explained that the gas line was clearly marked, the woman became so agitated that firefighters called an ambulance. “We had emergency services responding to a call by emergency services about a tree,” said Erin Maehr, a Parks Department forester. That tree went in too.
MillionTreesNYC aims to reach its target number of new trees by 2017. By the end of this fall’s planting season, 300,000 trees will have been planted across New York, many of them by volunteers and often in response to requests from residents. The program is so popular that in some areas there is a three-year waiting list. “But this being New York, there is always going to be someone who objects to what we’re doing,” said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.
Some dissent reflects a broader dissatisfaction with lagging city services, gentrification and a city government that some New Yorkers regard as overbearing, intrusive, and careless with tax dollars. “It’s not that they don’t want trees. It’s that they think we should be doing something else,” Greenfeld said as she walked along once-barren streets of East Harlem.
A melange of greenery- including the ubiquitous London planes with their sprawling branches and graceful willow oaks — now lines streets dotted with bodegas, pawn shops and auto parts stores. Greenfield said 1,420 trees had been planted in the area since the project began.
MillionTreesNYC, which is funded by the city and by the New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit founded by actress and New Yorker Bette Midler, has paid special attention to East Harlem because the neighborhood lacked shade and has one of the highest asthma rates in the nation. By sucking carbon out of the air, trees reduce pollution that contributes to respiratory ailments.
They also boost real estate prices. Think of all the ads heralding homes for sale on tree-lined blocks, said Benepe, whose office in Central Park reflects his love of trees. The window opens onto a tangle of branches humming with birds drawn to feeders that hang inches from the sill.
MillionTreesNYC, he said, is on track to “fully forest” the city- despite a cut in city funding from $400 million to $280 million, occasional attacks on trees and a freak summer storm that killed hundreds of trees in Central Park. “Trees give a great deal and ask very little in return,” Benepe said.
Complaints about the planting program are minuscule compared with the clamor for greenery, he said. A major goal of MillionTreesNYC is to educate people about arboreal benefits and sell them on the idea that trees are no different from stop signs, street lights or other fixtures of a civilized urban environment.
But in tough economic times, it can be difficult to envision the long-term gain when the greenery resembles Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. It can take years for trees to develop the girth to offer substantial shade.
And during their formative years, they need to be protected from dog urine, rodent bait and road salt. Although watering duty in the first two years falls to the contractors who plant the trees, the city encourages residents to nurture them as well, by removing trash from around the roots and installing barriers to protect the trunks from dogs, automobile tires and other hazards. As the trees grow, the city prunes them, but neighbors are expected to sweep up the leaves and berries.
That’s why people like Sonny Soave are indignant. Since the city owns the sidewalks, he said, it should not expect residents to look after trees they did not necessarily want. He also insisted that many of the most common street trees, such as London planes, crack sidewalks with their roots and produce massive branches that become tangled in electrical lines and damage homeowners’ roofs during storms.
“I like trees, but the city doesn’t take care of them,” said Soave, 69, a retired printer living in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn. “They neglect their duty after a while. The tree doesn’t belong to them if it falls. It only belongs to them if you do something to it.”
Parks officials point to the many trees carefully tended by residents who place protective iron gates around the trunks. Many people have planted flower beds around the new trees, with signs urging dog-walkers to steer their hounds to the curb. Some, however, have gone overboard. Greenfeld recently had to remove signs saying “No dog feces in this area- you will be prosecuted” that had been pounded onto sapling trunks with large nails. The intention was noble. But the nails could sicken the trees.
East Harlem was one of six neighborhoods where parks officials canvassed block by block in 2007 to determine how many trees were needed and where they should go. Many other parts of the city are forested in response to public requests, which can’t always be met. The trendy Soho neighborhood, for example, is not prime tree-planting territory because it is a former warehouse district where vaults once used for storage are buried beneath the sidewalks in places.
On a warm September afternoon, Maehr and Greenfeld went to a busy corner in Harlem, where someone had requested a tree. As they debated what type might thrive in the relatively tight spot, a man in a beret sipped coffee and eyed them from a table at an open-air cafe. He watched suspiciously as the women circled the restaurant with measuring devices, clipboards and a can of spray paint. Maehr determined that a tall narrow tree- perhaps a cypress- could fit outside the cafe, assuming the sidewalk was not hiding a vault. She went inside and asked for the manager, who turned out to be the man in the beret, Angelo Sesso.
His wary look turned to delight. “I’ve been here seven years, and I’ve been asking for a tree ever since!” he said in a thick Italian accent. “I want a tree right here. It would be nice,” Sesso said, pointing to a spot on the ground and assuring Maehr that the sidewalk beneath his business was solid.
He even knew what kind of tree he wanted: a pond cypress, a relatively rare street tree but one that Maehr and Greenfield said was ideal because of its slender trunk. With that, Maehr sprayed a white spot onto the curb where, someday soon, a tree will grow.
Related Resources:
Los Angeles Times- A tree grows (and dies) in Brooklyn