Death Be Not Proud
by Henry Stern
Do you know about Pelham Parkway?
It is a magnificent park and boulevard, 2.3 miles long and 400 feet wide. It connects Bronx Park and Pelham Bay Park. You should read its fascinating entry in Wikipedia. There is nothing quite like it in the City of New York, in terms of greenery and grandeur enhancing a public thoroughfare.
Today it is threatened - by, of all entities, the City of New York, whose Department of Transportation is planning to improve the park's roadways, and remove 87 mature trees that give the parkway its character and beauty. The project is slated to begin this fall and conclude in 2012.
If this were proposed for Central Park, or anywhere in Manhattan, the roar of public outrage would be impossible to ignore. But this is the Bronx, where cries are more likely to be ignored by bureaucrats and by the media. Many Manhattanites don't even know where Pelham Parkway is, much less appreciate its unique appearance.
What is special about this Parkway is that as you drive in it, above you is an arbor of trees whose upper branches reach from one side of the road to the other. It looks, and you feel, as if you were traveling through a park.
There are other parkways in the city, Mosholu in the Bronx, and Grand Central in Queens. Grand Central is a parkway in name only. It is in fact a highway. Whatever trees bordered it have long since been removed for successive widening of the concrete roadway. Mosholu Parkway connects Bronx and Van Cortlandt Parks. It is wide and handsome, but short on trees.
In 1988, while I was Parks Commissioner, a large number of maple trees were cut down by a DOT contractor without the community's knowledge or mine. We were outraged, and called it the Mosholu Massacre. The fallout from that episode consisted of new rules requiring public notice of any city construction project. Such notice, however, often does not reach those immediately affected by the construction.
In the Pelham Parkway case, we are told the road is not being widened. There is a plan to put a guard rail on the side of the road, to protect drivers who fall asleep, drive drunk, or don't know where the road is. The guard rail would also protect the trees, which are scuffed and gashed by the clumsy or irresponsible drivers.
It is not a physical necessity to remove the trees in order to install the guardrail. It is a convenience for the contractor. Also, a mature tree is not usually at death's door, about to fall on the roadway. Most have decades of life remaining. Their fate should not be determined by a death panel of highway engineers.
The situation comes down to values. The cost of the project is estimated at $36 million, all city capital budget funds. The local Community Board district manager has been agitating for years for the project, and we have no objection to it, although we cannot say that it should be a first priority. It would be a mistake to depress the roadway by 18 inches, as we are told is now being planned, because that could do substantial damage to the roots of trees, even beyond those already slated for removal.
A city now engaged in planting a million trees, a most worthy crusade initiated by Mayor Bloomberg, should also place value on keeping the living trees that we have. If people at the highest levels were aware of the damage this project as currently designed would do, they would order the necessary changes so that we could improve the highway, build the guard rail and save the trees.
Part of the problem is awakening the environmental and botanical communities to the arborcide that would occur if current plans are carried out. Although the trees in this case are miles from Manhattan, they deserve equal protection. In order to save them, the Department of Transportation and its construction agency, the Department of Design and Construction, must be made to understand the value of existing mature trees. Many of these trees were planted in the 1930s. It would take until 2090 for the replacements to grow to match what we have today.
In the past, we have been able to save trees threatened by construction. The three Siberian elms in Union Square Park and the two tall oaks on Old Town Road in Staten Island are alive today because of intervention on their behalf.
The arguments for saving trees are so old they have become cliches. They provide beauty, shade and oxygen. For over a century, they have been described as the lungs of the city. Frederick Law Olmsted used the phrase in 1872, referring to Central Park, which he and Calvert Vaux designed in 1857.
Trees should not be removed without a compelling reason to do so. Sadly, there is no legal protection for trees on private property, and some beautiful specimens have been destroyed by people building McMansions. But for the City of New York to execute its own trees in order to save a few dollars on a construction project is indefensible.
One thing I learned in my fifteen years as Parks Commissioner under Mayors Koch and Giuliani is not to rely on bureaucrats who tell you that something cannot be done. Find someone who can do the job, rebuild the road and save the trees. Or simply tell the existing staff that the trees should be allowed to continue their natural lives, safe from the drivers who would crash into them and the engineers who would turn them into sawdust.
The Pelham Parkway Preservation Alliance, founded by Dr. George Zulch, Joseph Menta and David Varenne, is the ad hoc neighborhood group that has led the effort to preserve the trees. The Alliance members have collected over 1,000 signatures from local residents in support of their cause. Their efforts have been reported in the local press, but have not yet penetrated the electronic media. If you are on Facebook, you can support the Alliance by clicking here to join their fan page. You could also email the Alliance at email@example.com or call (914) 419-9552 for more information.