From mid March to early June (and again from mid October to mid December), the New York City Parks Department plants approximately 7,500 trees on the sidewalks in front of people’s homes, in front of businesses, and on street medians. This is no small thing. A little bit of nature is being transplanted on your block, a la your tax dollars.
Nature has not been a central element in most New Yorkers’ lives for at least a hundred years. But walking home from the subway, visiting friends down the block, going shopping, a New Yorker inevitably passes a municipal tree. They are peripheral, usually, but sometimes you might smack into one accidentally, or you might hear a bird call and look up at the tree’s branches for it, or you might notice the flowers in spring or the leaves in fall, or you might find yourself suddenly lost for a moment contemplating this tall woody mute; “sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun.” They are silent reminders of a previous way of being.
Gil (not his real name) and his family have been planting trees in New York City for 40 years. His father and his two brothers came to the U.S. from Italy in the 1950s and worked for landscapers throughout the metropolitan area. For a decade or so they worked for seven or eight months here in the States and then went back to Italy for the remaining part of the year. However, in 1961, at the coaxing of Gil’s uncle, they decided to stay here for good and start their own business. With the company in place, Gil’s father, “shipped the whole family over. I was eight at the time,” Gil remembered, “and they tell me I cried for days. This place, New York, seemed so far away and unreal from our small town. I mean, I was being asked to give up my life for this big huge place across the ocean. I mean, it was like I was being kidnapped.”
In the family’s first decade of business, they were hired primarily by the Department of Transportation and the Housing Authority. But in 1972, a bond company brought them in to finish a street tree assignment that had been botched by a previous contractor. With the successful completion of that job, they entered the universe of the Parks Department and their street tree plantings.
This was just a year after Gil had graduated from high school. He wore his hair long, had conspicuous sideburns, played bass “poorly” in a rock band, hung out on the hot Queens’ pavement in summer, occasionally went road-tripping. He had a sense of life as free and untarnished. Yet, he was also a first generation immigrant, with a homegrown business that had catapulted the family out of rural Italy and made them middle class Americans; and ultimately he wasn’t ready to disregard this, and so after a short moment of sleeping late and rocking out he joined his father and uncle in the landscaping business.
For nearly 20 years, along the way marrying and fathering three daughters and cutting his hair and sideburns, Gil learned the profession. Then in 1995 (his uncle had moved on to start a plant nursery in Long Island and his father had retired), Gil’s cousin Frank, who had taken over the business with him, confessed he had waning interest in the occupation. At the same time, Gil was contemplating leaving the legacy to Frank and venturing out independently. Instead, he took over the family enterprise and made it his own.
Now, using the original family yard (where the company’s machinery and plants are stored) in Whitestone, Queens, his entire livelihood depends upon the city planting trees. Thankfully, this is a fairly reliable thing today. However, New York City’s history with trees is checkered, its commitment to them becoming firm only by the early 20th century.
In 18th century New York, public trees were very much a part of the city’s configuration. A century earlier, millions of trees‹whole forests‹had been eliminated to make way for the new settlers. Nevertheless, when the city became established, trees were planted around public structures, on village greens, along streets, and in private yards, as if in compensation for all the ones felled to develop New York. In 1732, Robert Prince opened up America’s first commercial plant nursery in the village of Flushing. Soon after, Samuel Parsons opened up his nursery in Flushing. This allowed for the burgeoning city to introduce trees on a larger scale. Indeed, the city’s growth and success made Prince and Parsons flourish; and their prosperity attracted other nurserymen to begin businesses in the area, making Flushing the plant nursery capital of the U.S. from 1798-1937. (A portion of Kissena Park in central Queens was the site of a former plant nursery and has many wonderful trees left over from that enterprise.)
In 1748, when Peter Kalm of Sweden was sent over by the great taxonomist Carolus Linneaus to inventory the plant life of the New World, he wrote of New York City, “I found it exceedingly pleasant to walk in town; the trees which are planted . . . the Water Beech or Linneaus’s Plantanus occidentalis are the most numerous. There are likewise lime trees and elms, but they are not by far so frequent.” In addition to the trees mentioned by Kalm, the streets and commons were full of weeping willows, European and American elms, silver maples, honeylocust, and horsechesnut. These are all large canopy trees, and those that made it to adulthood shaded the streets with their broad leafy crowns and created the “pleasant[ness]” that Kalm mentioned. New York City then was still a relatively small place, and the public trees were the link to its recent rural history.
By the early 1800s, the infrastructure of the city was in great flux as it grew to accommodate all its new residents. In an attempt to both contain and adapt to this increase, in 1807 the street grid system of Manhattan was designed. In laying this lattice, many of the community trees that had been planted in the 1700s were removed; and the old semi-rural town of New Amsterdam was demolished forever.
As a consequence of the city’s growth and ambition, small was passed over in favor of large, and thus street trees were ignored and instead Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, the city’s first expansive piece of landscaped nature, was built in 1838. Almost immediately afterwards, in the 1840s, many influential New Yorkers started voicing their desire for a great urban park. This movement for a pastoral retreat inside the city ultimately led to Central Park, which then triggered the development and preservation of parkland throughout the city. It was not until the late 1870s, under Boss Tweed, that a street tree policy finally emerged‹the city fixed in large stature now getting back to some small details. The showcase of this effort, begun in the mid-1880s, was the formation of the New York City Street Tree Planting Association and the queues of trees planted on Fifth Avenue from Washington Square Park to 59th Street. In 1902, public “vegetation” was put under Parks Department jurisdiction and taken away from the Public Works Department. With the change in authority came new laws. Any mutilation of any sort to any plant was now a crime. In addition, any modifications to public plants or landscapes required a permit; and ultimately the permit would require the replacement of any tree removed.
In part because of the advocacy of the Street Tree Planting Association, and in part because of a general change in attitude about street trees, the city’s residents deluged the Park’s Department with requests for new trees. Between 1910-1919 the Parks Department planted about 110,000 trees and removed just over 100,000. It was by far the busiest tree moment in city history (until the 1990s, in which approximately the same number of trees were planted). In the decade before, just fewer than 20,000 trees were planted and about 5,000 dead or hazardous trees removed. By the time the flurry of planting had died down in the early 20s, there were an estimated 630,000-trees citywide. The city had gobs of money then, not unlike the 1990s, and so the city embroidered itself with green.
But then the creeping vine of financial trouble which culminated in the Depression wiped out street tree planting like it wiped out all other extravagances, which is the category trees fall under during fiscal hard times. From 1921-29, only about 1,000 trees were planted and about 2,000 removed.
Exacerbating things, Dutch elm disease, which had arrived in Holland from the Himalayas in 1918, found its way to New York City in 1930. A fungus carried by a beetle, it traveled over the Atlantic in diseased elm-wood crating. It soon spread to the American elms that lined the streets of many East Coast cities and filled out our forests. By the time the disease was uncovered, the native elm was doomed. Now, just a mere shadow of the species remains, with the largest grouping of healthy specimens in New York City in Central Park, along Literary Walk and along and adjacent to Fifth Avenue.
Robert Moses unified the Parks Department as a citywide agency in 1934 and immediately started planting street trees as part of his redesigning of the city. He planted London planes and Norway maples, tens of thousands of them, his favorite specimens. They are strong, willful, opportunistic trees that thrive in the sidewalks of our city. Without knowing it, Moses came close to creating a “duo-culture,” the two species dominating the street tree forest like two superior athletes dominating a particular sport. On September 21, 1939, New York was hit with a powerful storm. It raged, ultimately causing the death of 12,319 trees. More than half those felled were the internally weak and easily toppled silver maples and poplars. The silver maples and poplars were replaced with London planes and Norway maples, and removed from the roster of trees the city planted.
It was not until the mid-1960s that the city started increasing its plantings again. For more than three decades, starting from the mid 1920s, and in spite of Robert Moses, the number of trees in the city dropped by nearly 100,000. (Interestingly, although the total citywide number declined, the loss was concentrated in Brooklyn and Queens, the boroughs with by far the most trees. Plantings actually increased a bit in the Bronx, Staten Island, and Manhattan.) It was as the street tree planting program was just swinging upward again that Gil’s father and uncle committed to the business.
Driving around the city with Gil is a bit like driving with an urban Johnny Appleseed. Just about every block we pass he points out a tree planted by his family. Heavier in body than in his youth‹America’s liberty has fattened many men‹with sun-dappled Mediterranean skin, black hair, and deep set eyes, Gil isn’t particularly sentimental, but he is definitely earnest. He is apt to say, “I remember when we planted that tree 20-years ago. It’s a good strong tree. Look at it. Look at how it’s grown.” And for a brief moment, as we pass it by at its sidewalk home, we are silent. “There was a tree,” he continued, “that when we were digging out the hole, this is somewhere on Madison Avenue, I think, that this rich woman comes out and says we must bury her cat in the pit of the tree. I know this is illegal, or at least I think so, but she was so sad, she was broken up, and so we fit the cat peacefully into a corner of the pit and then planted the tree.”
Gil very much likes the idea that he has played a significant part in the green up his city. In a way, it is like being a foster parent. He takes his trees from a plant nursery (many coming for his uncle’s nursery), cares for them for a moment, and then prepares them to be on their own in a city pit. He wants them, like any good guardian, to thrive, to be healthy.
Today, he picks me up at the Olmsted Center in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, where my office is located. I am the Deputy Director for Central Forestry, the unit that oversees the planting of all new street trees and greenstreets, which was former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern’s program to convert barren triangles and medians into street gardens.
A few weeks back, we had visited the street medians along Francis Lewis Boulevard, in Queens, where we are going to plant nearly 100 trees between the Grand Central Parkway and the Long Island Expressway. The over a mile long stretch, with Alley Pond Park flanking a portion of its eastern side, was a grassy worn down strip. Impatient cars wanting to U-turn would trough their wheels across the grass. Jaywalkers would use the strip as an in-between the boulevard sanctuary, crossing from their cars into the park to play softball. The neighborhood is quiet, not lacking in its leafiness, but the median was pronouncedly bare; and the trees that we were going to plant was devised as the remedy.
Gil and I stop to get some tea and bagels and then we are off to the site. He tells me that I will really like the trees he has purchased for this project. A Parks Department forester always goes out to the plant nursery with a contractor to select, or “tag” in landscaper parlance, the plants that will be used on our streets. It is a quality protection that the city has written into its contracts with the private landscapers that work for us.
When I am with Gil, I recline in the passenger’s seat and let him drive. I grew up in New York City, but I was Manhattan-bound for most of my life. Now, working citywide, administering the planting of trees and greenstreets in every crack and corner of Gotham, I know the city in much greater detail. I can travel from the Bronx to Far Rockaway and in between without a map. Even though my relationship with the city has turned starkly ambivalent (I want desperately to leave and try rural life after 40 odd years of existence here), I actually feel closer to it now, knowing it in its full roughness and stretch, the peaks and spikes of Manhattan counterbalanced by the flatlands of its other neighborhoods, all its peculiar communities encased in their niches, all absolutely distinctive. With Gil, however, I am the passenger.
I turn to him and ask him why his family got into the business in the first place. He is quiet, thinking, then he says, “You know I never really thought about that much. But my family were all farmers back in Italy, planting orange trees and olive trees and I guess it was the thing they knew best. When they came here, they worked for other landscapers, learned the business. So, by the time they started our company, they knew what they were doing.”
He stopped for a moment. “I don’t remember what it was called, I think the Great Society, is that right? You know Kennedy and then Johnson, and all this money went into public housing in the city and my family had lots of work. There were all these courtyards and lawns to plant. I mean, this was America and there was money to make regular people’s spaces green and pretty.”
“Did you ever think about doing another type of work?”
“Not really. I mean, it was the hippie time and I had a few dreams of traveling. I loved Joe Cocker, Jethro Tull, and I played the bass, really bad,” he makes sure to say, “but the door was waiting for me and I saw no real reason not to go in. I knew I’d have a family and I had to pay for them. Maybe I am too responsible, but I wanted to be a good man, take care of the things I was supposed to, and the family business was just that.”
“What about the hours?”
“They kill me. Sometimes I feel like I will die with exhaustion. On Sunday nights, when everyone else is resting, I’m going over the next week’s schedule.”
“Are your daughters going to take over?”
“It dies here, I think, the family name.” He pointed at his heart. “They are going off to do other things. I’ll= probably leave the business to some of my workers.”
“Will they take it?”
“Absolutely. They’re hard working immigrants, like I was, and still am, and they know what kind of money is possible here. They want fancy cars too.”
Gil’s back and hands are roughed up from all of the planting and the operating of machinery he has done over 30 years. Gil thinks of retirement in the vague future, but this business pays for a nice life for his three daughters and wife. It even bought him a Lexus a few years back, a pride purchase, the only material extravagance that Gil expresses.
“There was a time when things weren’t as good as they are today,” he said. “My family was young, and Bram,” he turned to me, “I thought, but not really, that maybe there was something else. But what else could I do? This is what I have been trained for my whole life.”
In the 1960s and 70s, street tree planting picked up from the lull in the 50s. The city then required about a third ($50) from homeowners for a tree. Clearly, this policy favored those who could afford it. Mayor John Lindsay, in 1973, committed the city to plant 50,000 trees citywide at no cost to the homeowner. Unfortunately, barely into the program, the city’s finances swerved out of control and the program was only able to continue because of a federal urban forestry program. In the beginning of the 1980s, the city fully committed to trees. In part a response to a Parks Council (a non-profit parks advocacy group) warning that the city wasn’t paying enough attention to its trees, and in part the economy curving back up, the city started using federal community development funds and city capital improvement dollars to fill out the urban forest. What’s more, the city started paying the full price of the street tree.
The current interest in trees is a direct result of the rise in popularity of the environmental movement; nature, first in large rural tracts and then in cities, started to be protected at an unprecedented rate in the 1970s and continues presently. The New York Street Tree Consortium was developed to teach citizens tree maintenance, tree advocacy, and basic pruning. Reflecting the culture change, and with a brand new tree-friendly Commissioner, Henry Stern, the Parks Department started vigorously planting trees along roads and in medians. In the 80s, just fewer than 100,000 trees were planted, second in prodigality to the 1920s, and over 120,000 trees were removed, the decaying biomass being cleaned up.
In 1995, using hundreds of community volunteers, high school, and college kids, the Parks Department performed a citywide street tree census. The tally was 498,470 trees citywide (about 2.5 million trees resides on public land, another 2.5 million trees on private land). The borough with the most street trees is Queens, with 217,111, 43.6%. The borough with the least trees is Manhattan, at 9.2%. The top five species of trees planted on our city’s sidewalks are 1) Norway maple 2) London planetree 3) Pin oak 4) Honeylocust 5) Callery pear. These five species make up more than half of the street tree population, with differing amounts and percentages in each borough.
The census thrust street trees into a new light. Dead trees are now removed within 30-days, thereabouts, making way for new trees. The diversity of species that are planted has been extended to nearly 50 from 32 in the mid-1980s. This reflects a broadening of scope in management, the change an outcome of the new crop of urban foresters and environmentalists educated on the literature of conservation and biodiversity (of which I am one.)
Interestingly, trees historically have not been part of urban planning. The royalty of certain empires (the Persians in particular) had hunting parks built within city limits, but ignored trees as architecture. Roman cities and medieval cities also did not consider trees necessary. It was not until 17th century Paris that trees were used by city designers to beautify streets. The French first used them along the Champs Elysees. The success of this project led to tree lined streets throughout the city, in some cases “greenways” along boulevards and avenues, linking parks. The design of Versailles, in particular, and its long straight lines of a single species of tree became the pro forma civic model. The magnitude of this change in the urban blueprint was enormous. No modern city, if it has the stability and funds, considers building their town without street trees.
The driving force for most urban landscapers was beauty, a French inspired model of uniformity and great canopy. By no means has this aesthetic disappeared‹every landscaper, in one way or another, is trying to insert some natural elegance into the flinty ecology of New York City. Yet, the traditional field of landscape design is now integrated with environmentalists and ecologists, professionals who look at ecosystems (the street tree forest is one) and try and balance it with biodiversity. The idea is: the more diversity of species in an ecosystem the more protected it is against severe damage and disturbance. The storm of 1939 is a prime example. If, let’s say, all the city’s trees were the fragile silver maple and poplar, the entire street tree map would have been erased. That more than 6,000 of the dead trees that next day were just two species speaks precisely for diversity. When there is turbulence (of any kind), inevitably one set of individuals is more vulnerable than another set, for a host of both obvious and subtle reasons. There is protection in variety. So, the crop of conservation-educated students entered the landscape field and saw the street tree maze as an ecosystem and began to move the floral composition away from Norway maples and London planes and create a roadway forest of greater heterogeneity.
Recently, a whole new set of specifications has been written into the city’s contracts with landscapers in an attempt to make life healthier and less stressful for urban plants. Tree pits have been traditionally 3′ by 3′, a tiny box for a large organism. Now, we hope for at least 5′ by 5′, if not larger. Slow-leak fertilizers and nitrogen-fixing fungus are added to the soil that fills a tree pit. Plants are rejected if not of high quality, forcing nurseries to increase the grade of their stock. And there now exists a two-year guarantee period in which all contractors are responsible for any plant that dies because of poor health. None of these changes imply that landscapers, by and large, of previous decades were indifferent to the quality of trees used in their designs. These changes are the result of a more environmentally conscious culture and their concomitant professionals.
Gil doesn’t grumble about these lengthy and legalese contract specifications. Perhaps he feels like a kid watched ceaselessly by his interfering parents. A few decades ago, there was more contractor freedom. There was less accountability. Some contractors complain more. Some find loopholes. One in particular loved showing us he knew the contract better than we did. Gil is no saint or push over. He is, at heart, a businessman. I’m sure he would love fewer controls, more room to play with the sides and make more easy money. But he still makes a very comfortable living because of municipal trees, and he is, like many immigrants, highly adaptable. “It’s how it is,” he says.
We then arrive at the site. Within a few moments a long open truck lumbers down the boulevard. It has about 20 trees on it, all lying on their sides, covered by a big tarp. It is a strange site, the big heavy truck carrying these baby trees who lie apparently lifeless on their side. It speaks volumes for man’s dominion over nature–these trees are totally in our care and at our whim.
Gil leaves me to organize the planting, and I drift off to the side to watch. Another truck is carrying a bobcat and bulldozer. He has a crew of about 8-10 workers, and they get into gear. They divert traffic by setting up orange cones, which creates a small traffic bottleneck and a few driver frustrations. The bobcat is unloaded from the truck and the operator begins to dig holes for the trees. The excess soil and grass from the median is loaded onto a truck for removal. The trees are untied from the truck and when enough holes are dug the trees are then carried by a bulldozer and maneuvered into the pit. Gil is like a conductor, his mouth and hands his baton.
Then, tree by tree, the median is transformed. From flat grassland to sapling forest. For me, sitting back watching, it is a grand moment. Both Gil and I, in our different ways, labor to make the city green. It is what keeps the calm, we think, when there is too much enterprise, technology, and arousal; plants rectify the city in every way, cleaning the air of pollution, giving oxygen, softening the concrete, moderating temperatures, attracting wildlife, and reminding us of our past. After about a week of planting, the entire stretch is now variegated with more than 100 young trees–the City and one of its contractors has mid-wifed the birth of a young woodland.