Arbor Day for Rudy

by

05/17/2004

Steve Flanders Sq 10007

Neighborhood: Lower Manhattan

I really did try all the conventional methods. Really. I wrote imploring letters to the Office of the Mayor, I called my City Council members’ secretary at all hours, I testified at public hearings before assorted half-awake bureaucrats. Nothing and again nothing. It would have been less frustrating to tell it all to the guy at the token booth. I had gone through all the channels and still over 100 community gardens from around New York were on the auction block for May. In a city with a 2.1 billion dollar budget surplus. Beautiful little patches of green, slivers of Eden that bring communities together and reclaim neighborhoods from blight. My garden, where I had been working for a year, was wedged on a tiny triangle of land between the Bruckner Expressway and a housing project in the South Bronx. And it was on the auction block as well. There were hundreds of us trying to save the gardens, but there was no response to our requests except to be accused of being “stuck in the era of communism” by Mayor Giuliani.

It’s difficult to conjure up those long ago days, six years ago, when Giuliani was a perfect stock villain out of a silent melodrama, instead of the Mayor of the World, the Churchill of 9/11, the highly paid security consultant and presumptive Dick Cheney replacement he has become today. For the community gardeners, we were just the latest in a series of the authoritarian Mayor’s targets: squeegee men, the homeless, squatters, cab drivers, jay walkers, fare beaters, sidewalk artists, elephant-dung representers of the Madonna. Giuliani had started a fight with the gardeners and now we were going to take the fight to his backyard.

You had only to take a walk around City Hall Park to sense the enormity of our Mayor’s paranoia, during that spring of 1998 (that his paranoia would someday be born out, none of us suspected). Under renovation, it looked like a medium-security prison, surrounded by eight-foot chain link and concrete barricades.

It was on such a walk that April that the idea came to me, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. The perfect, crystalline vision of moving into one of the mayor’s trees and not coming down. If he’s going to sell my garden and cut down my trees, I thought, I’ll just have to use his. And from that seed the idea grew.

I scouted the park with a friend of mine from Earth First! and found the perfect tree, a fifty foot ginkgo outside the fence on the park’s edge, with low bottom branches, good visibility from the street, and an easy climbing route. I felt like Raskolnikov going through the paces of his crime, sizing up possible trees around the park’s periphery. The police surrounding City Hall suspected nothing.

By the arranged day (Arbor Day, of course), everything was ready. I had my supplies: trail mix, water, extra clothes, Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, and the huge sunflower headdress I had built last Halloween out of coat hangers (generously donated by the dry cleaner on my block) and yellow satin curtains ($9.95). And a great many rolls of Duct tape (this was also an era when Duct tape had more innocent associations). My friends were all there with me, just outside the City Hall stop of the 4,5,6 on a beautiful morning on the last day of the last cruelest month in an over-eventful millennium. The sunlight had an almost liquid quality. Each strand of the Brooklyn Bridge was as precise as a line drawing in the clear air. The trees shook their heads, with new leaves bursting out everywhere in a regeneration that seemed unlikely at best only weeks before. I was pretty nervous, but seeing as how it had been my idea, there I was, the voluntary sacrificial lamb, who had only to climb a tree and wait.

I crossed the street and stood, casually as I could, at the corner of the park. A policeman stood only thirty feet away, directing traffic at the intersection. I half expected him to run and tackle me the moment I touched the tree. Some forest spirit left over from before the Dutch arrived on this island must have cast a spell over him, because he suddenly left the intersection and walked around the corner, out of sight. So cued, up I went.

The first branch was about seven feet high, and after a brief scramble where I thought I was too shaky to climb, I made it. Looking back at the street corner, I realized nobody had even noticed. So I went higher and higher, my pack getting caught on branches, my face brushing against the new ginkgo leaves. I grew up on an apple orchard in Vermont, and have been climbing trees my entire life, but never anything quite like the mayor’s ginkgo.

There is a feeling one only has up in a tree, with people scurrying unnoticing below, seeming pointlessly rushed, disconnected from themselves and their surroundings. And so it seemed when I reached the top, looking down on the unquiet desperation of morning rush hour at the corner of Centre and Chambers, everyone running to their cubicles and not a one looking up. I took the sunflower out of my pack and “donned” it, to use the term the newspapers would later use. And still no one looked up. My friends had all congregated at the bottom of the tree, and began holding up their signs and chanting, calling on the Giuliani to stop the auction.

He didn’t come out. As it turns out, he wasn’t there, but I had no way of knowing that at the time.

And nobody seemed to be paying much attention to our brilliantly orchestrated plan. Finally, a lone cop on a scooter pulled up, looked up at me, and shook his head.

“You wanna come down?” he called up, barely audible over the traffic.

“No thank you.”

“They’re gonna lock you up.”

“They’ll have to come up and get me first.”

I know I kept shouting down to the people on the ground from time to time. I know there were, at some point, reporters and cops shouting questions at me, and that a crowd started to form on the corner. The entire line for the bagel cart across the street was turned and looking at me. The realization that the proximity to the city courts meant that, in all likelihood, an equal number of prosecutors and public defenders were witnessing my actions, brought little comfort. But somehow, despite all the noise and commotion below, I was in an envelope of stillness. Somehow I slipped out of the awareness that what I was doing, to the vast majority of people in this city, was completely insane. Bellevue, Ward’s Island, men-in-white-uniforms certifiable nuts.

I could see an inchworm crawling on a branch a few inches away. A light breeze off the water shook the new leaves on all the trees, and I could feel myself swaying as though I were out at sea. Birds flitted from the stoplight to the branches, and then dropped to the ground to peck for crumbs. Sunlight dappled the branches. It seemed, up there, that this feeling was really the whole point of trying to save community gardens, that in a city with so little open space for so many, gardens allowed some of the feeling of tranquility I felt up in that tree. What were those poor people on the ground scurrying so much for? Come up in the trees! Live! The world seemed so far away. I felt little else but that up in the tree I was free, and down on the ground I would not be.

Particularly considering the number of disgruntled public servants that were gathering at the base of the tree. I was awoken from my reverie when I realized that coming up in the trees was exactly what they intended to do. Four Emergency Services vehicles screeched up, one a truck with a boat on the roof. In case I tried to catapult myself into the East River, apparently. The driver jumped out and must have forgotten his emergency brake, because the huge truck began to roll backward very nearly hitting an NBC reporter and a squad car. There were about thirty police under the tree by this point, and a dozen reporters. A huge air bag was inflated beneath me.

And then a ladder was placed against one of the lower branches. I climbed a little higher. There wasn’t much tree left. An Emergency Services officer in jumpsuit, heavy gloves, and climbing gear ascended the ladder. I was still another twenty feet above its top. He began to climb, nervously.

“You don’t climb trees much, do you?” I asked.

“No. Bridges.” he replied, struggling to get his arm over a branch, and then clipping his safety harness to it.

“Are you gonna come down?”

“Come up a little higher,” I replied.

He made it up, after some struggle, to the branch beneath me. I perched above him. He looked scared. He had his arm around the trunk like it was a ship’s mast in a storm.

“Look,” I said, “I don’t want anyone to get hurt. If you shake my hand and tell me that community gardens are a good thing, I’ll come down.”

Holding the trunk still, he reached up with a gloved hand and we shook.

“Say it.” I said “Community gardens are a big thing.” he mumbled.

“Good thing.”

“Community gardens are a good thing.” He wouldn’t look me in the eye.

“Okay, I’ll come down.”

“You gotta put on the harness or I’ll get in trouble.”

No wonder he couldn’t climb. His safety harness felt like one of those lead aprons they have at the dentist’s. So he descended and I followed. Down the tree, slowly, retreating from that peace of which I had felt a glimmer, like pulling down a shade against the morning light. I stopped at the top of the ladder and straightened my petals before climbing to the ground.

I had, vaguely, the sense of handcuffs snapping around my wrists, of flashes bursting in my face and the eye of a television camera peering at me as I was ushered off by many, many cops. Questions were yelled and I shouted back answers. I should have yelled “I’m just a pansy,” like some arboreal Lee Harvey Oswald. Hundreds of people were staring at me from across the street. At some point, the sunflower costume was pulled off at the behest of an angry captain.

And then there was the fingerprinting (now digital), and giving them your shoelaces, and the kind cop whose father had a farm upstate gave me girl scout cookies through the bars, and let me read Calvino till they took me to The Tombs, where the identical twin junkies and the guy who got arrested for bringing a python on the subway called me “tree climber” with some sort of respect, and the night court judge twelve hours later burst out laughing before sending me out onto the streets of Chinatown on my own recognizance.

And through it all, even in the fluorescent lit, institutional-green dungeon of Manhattan Central Booking, I felt the branches swaying beneath my feet and the spring sunlight on my face, a feeling not even the mayor of New York could put up for auction.

But it wasn’t until the papers came out the next day that it really sunk in.

PROTESTER GOES OUT ON A LIMB TO SAVE GARDENS

COPS PLUCK PETULANT CITY HALL PROTESTER

PLANT LOVER UP A TREE IS PRUNED BY POLICE

Even the New York Times editorial page got in on the act: “Despite months of discussion and last week’s highly public arrest of a man dressed as a sunflower…”

And somewhere in all of it, amid the protests and the shouting and the dozens more arrests, the Mayor sensed the tide of public opinion was against him on this, sensed (it seemed to us, at that moment) his political mortality for the first time, and called off the auction at the eleventh hour. Which back then was all the victory we could imagine. If you walk around on a May afternoon, on the Lower East side, past all the little gardens on 9th street and 6th street and Avenue B, or all the way up to 136th and Cypress in the South Bronx, you’ll see why.

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