Brooklyn Boro

OPINION: Street trees, not just for gentrifiers

December 10, 2014 By Raanan Geberer Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Street trees on Front Street in Vinegar Hill. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
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Hana Schank, who wrote the semi-humorous essay about tree pits in front of houses titled “A Story About Gentrification in Brooklyn,” in the New York Times recently, should know that tree pits are neither symbols of gentrification nor as trivial as she makes them out to be.

In the essay, Schank talks about her effort to maintain a small tree in a pit outside her house. Several vine-like plants she planted there are torn out, she puts up a picket fence that is soon bashed in by a car door, and the tree pit is finally adopted by a nearby super who installs a few wooden ducks, a ceramic pig and other artificial animals. (By the way, someone should tell her that her quip, “I’m afraid I’m going to walk out there and see the baby Jesus and the three wise men next,” is probably offensive to many Catholics.)

Yes, many of her tales are amusing. But she should realize that her small tree will someday become a large, leafy one that will benefit not only her but other residents of the block. The late Eagle columnist Dennis Holt once wrote that when he moved into Boerum Hill in the early 1970s, his block didn’t contain one street tree.  The area at the time was also rife with break-ins, including Dennis’ own home, and open drug dealing.

When street trees were planted, these illegal activities decreased. The issue was not gentrification, but livability.

Similarly, I once saw a photo of a then-new street in the South Bronx around 1912. There were stores, spacious new apartment houses, wide streets and electric wires. However, there were no trees. This lack of what I consider an essential amenity certainly contributed to the area’s decline into a slum by the late 1960s.

If you check out the winners of the “Greenest Block in Brooklyn” contest for the last 10 years or so, many of the blocks that were winners or runners-up came not from gentrified areas like Park Slope (although some did), but from working-class and/or minority areas like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Flatbush, East Flatbush and Crown Heights. Clearly, not only “gentrifiers” care about street trees, front gardens, window boxes filled with plants and so on.

Unlike Dennis Holt, I wasn’t that much an admirer of former Mayor Bloomberg (despite the fact that he always used to call on me at press conferences). However, one of the best things Bloomberg did while in office was to institute his “Million Trees NYC” program. Of these million new trees, 220,000 would be street trees.

Trees provide shade and oxygen, absorb water during storms, provide sustenance for birds and reduce the effects of pollution. They also make the streetscape more attractive and increase property values. For many years, particularly in the 1950s and ’60s, street trees were discouraged because in some cases, their roots damaged the pavement, but hopefully modern planting techniques will solve that problem.

Street trees aren’t just for gentrifiers — they’re for everybody. Bloomberg and Bette Midler’s non-profit New York Restoration Project had the right idea when they began to aggressively promote street-tree planting. In Brooklyn, let’s make every day Arbor Day!

Raanan Geberer, a freelance writer, recently retired as Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He had been Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Bulletin until 1996, when the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was revived and merged with the Bulletin.


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