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COLUMN ONE

A tree grows (and dies) in Brooklyn

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.

October 15, 2009|Tina Susman

NEW YORK — 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, October 16, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Tree planting: An article in Thursday's Section A about a New York program to plant 1 million trees misspelled the name of the city Parks and Recreation Department's director of street-tree planting. It is Jennifer Greenfeld, not Greenfield.

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 Greenfield, 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," Greenfield 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.

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