Safety In Numbers: The Tale of a Tree
By Denise O'Leary
On the corner of 209th and Hull, lawn chairs line the edge of the sidewalk. Harriet’s chair is so old that the plastic seat is peeling even though she never sits in it longer than five minutes. Chino has one of those beach chairs that reclines backward. He falls asleep in it sometimes and blocks the whole sidewalk with his body for hours. Aunt Donna likes to kick him awake. The old men from 208th street set up their table at 8AM, light cigars, and play dominoes til 10 at night.
During the summer months, Joan from down the block invites everyone over for barbecue. You can smell ribs, chicken, and skirt steak from two blocks away. It’s so hot that the kids from the fourth floor invite their friends to run underneath the cool water of the open fire hydrant.
The apartment building’s front stoop provides seats to the best spot on the block – the big red oak tree. It towers above the surrounding buildings. The bark is scratchy and has scars from generations of kids trying to climb it. Its leaves provide shade in the summer and striking coppers when they fall in the autumn. Its location is perfect: close to the hydrants, bodega, church, and school.
My grandmother, Irish-Catholic woman, talks to Verna, the Jewish woman, who then talks to the Dominican lady with the ugly chihuahua. A young kid can play in the street without being nervous. Neighbors can bond despite their cultural differences. I can walk down the street knowing that there is always someone sitting under that oak tree. Whenever I’m scared, I know that I can count on that crowd to ask me “Are you okay?” “Are you safe?”
Every day after school, I greet my grandmother and her friends watering the garden that they have planted in the tiny tree plot. She waters her plants at 3 PM, just in time for my arrival from school. She asks me about my day. I eat. I always steal Harriet’s chair to do my homework.
I vent to Tricia about my mom. I play with Leslie’s dog, Lola. Chino invites me to try playing bongos with him. I am a part of the community.
One Thursday night, my mother and I wake to a loud crash. The sky is dark and the rain sounds like a waterfall. The tree has been struck by lightning. A large branch sits in the middle of the street, splintered where it was once connected to the tree. Still holding onto its leaves. When I return from school that day, people surround the tree. Neighbors are arguing with the two men the city hired to cut down the tree. They have to cut down the tree, and we have to deal with it.
Aunt Donna watches them cut down the tree as she walks her dog. Tricia is sitting on the stoop. My grandmother watches from her fire escape. A line of traffic stands honking in the street while the men cut down the tree. The whirring sound of the chainsaw carries over two blocks. Mr. Feliciano complains that the chainsaw grinds against the tree forever. Then silence falls.
My grandmother no longer plants flowers. I never run into Lola the dog. I see children only walking past on their way to school. Tricia sits on the stoop alone smoking cigarettes, and Harriet can only be seen grabbing a coffee at the bodega. There is no one there to talk to after school or work. The welcoming group that I had grown so close to has disappeared. The block is quiet. I become disconnected from my neighbors, I miss the tree.
In my senior year of high school, I learn that any citizen of NYC can request for a tree to be planted in an empty tree bed. I make three requests to the New York Parks Service. My first petition goes on the NYC Parks website. There is a slot for your name, number, address of the empty tree plot, and a message. I write the best message I can possibly write. I talk about the beauty of the tree. Its leaves were bright green and turned a beautiful burnt orange in the fall. It provided shade on the hottest of summer days. It stood above all other trees on the block. No response. I complete a second petition on the website. This time, there is a survey asking for the type of service: “plant request,” “mature tree died,” “empty tree plot,” or “sidewalk repair.” I click on plant request and enter the address. The Parks Service doesn’t care why we need a new tree. Not only does a tree give my neighbors a place to socialize, but it provides so much more. It gives us shade and protection from the elements. It houses the small creatures of the neighborhood, like squirrels and sparrows. It sucks up all of the pollution in the city and gives us the gift of oxygen. The list goes on and on. Because the Parks Service shows no interest in my individual requests, I become pessimistic. As a final effort, I put up a paper in my apartment lobby asking for signatures for a new tree. Within a couple of hours, almost the whole building has signed my paper. With my last glimmer of hope, I send the signatures and a final letter directly to the Parks Service office. My letter speaks about the meaning of the tree. The list of people that have signed my petition depend on that tree as a place to socialize, to play in the hydrants, to play dominoes, to eat lunch, to smoke cigars, to walk dogs, to connect with neighbors in a rough and scary neighborhood. Another year passes and no response.
During the summer break of my freshman year, I go back to my block. Not only is there a new tree in the empty plot, but three new trees have also been planted – a mix of landscape trees. The one placed in front of my building is another red oak. The others carry beautiful flowers. I think to myself, “Did the petitions work?” I never received notification of the trees being planted. I wondered if I actually made a change to my neighborhood or if planting these trees was just a normal city process. But the reason doesn’t matter. We have a tree again. As I approach my apartment, some of my neighbors, who are sitting on the stoop, wave to me. Chino helps me with my bags. Aunt Donna and Leslie walk their dogs together. Harriet offers me her worn down chair. My grandmother waters the new tree and asks me about my first year. I eat her cookies, gaze at the new trees, and feel at home. I feel safe.
Denise is a senior environmental science major at Ithaca College with a minor in anthropology. She was born and raised in Bronx, New York and is proud to identify as a city girl. In the spring semester of 2016, she studied sustainability in Iceland through an immersion program in Sólheimar, one of the world's oldest ecovillages. Currently head beekeeper at Ithaca College, she hopes to apply her experiences in sustainability in Ithaca and in Iceland to urban communities.