Arbor Day Protest at Union Square: Stop the Privatization of Public Space Event Report Back

An Arbor Day protest on Friday, April 25th in Union Square Park united artist/vendors with tree-savers and bike riders around the theme: Stop Privatization of Public Space / Protect Our Trees.

Artists, performers, eco-activists and community members leafleted the thousands of people streaming through Union Square Park with information about what’s happening in our city – the mass cutting down of trees in our parks, the privatization of public space, and reduction of public space – under the auspices of Mayor Bloomberg.

Many of the Washington Square Park activists who have worked so hard and for so long to help that Park came out in support of protecting the trees and stopping the privatization at Union Square and in our City overall. I met some WSP blog-readers too!

Members of the Bronx Treekeepers arrived with a new petition and collected many signatures as we circled the Square. We approached – and were approached by – numerous people (including people playing Twister on the plaza who held the flyer in their mouths so as not to lose their positions!). They all wanted information on how Mayor Bloomberg is encroaching on our public space and his tree destruction (despite his MillionTreesNYC p.r.). The information that 14 trees were going to be chopped down to make way for a private restaurant left people aghast.

There were other protests going on that evening — notably the Sean Bell verdict protest in Queens had been called for the same time — so we knew that many activists who would have attended had headed over there, understandably.

The protest was to begin at the Gandhi statue, and a number of folks gathered there. I started out near the statue of George Washington on his horse and the Main Plaza, and met up with a few others there. Chalking messages on the voluminous plaza seemed to garner the crowd’s attention (wondering perhaps what is this chalk-wielding woman doing?). One message: “Stop Mayor Bloomberg from Privatizing our Parks – Union Square is Next!” In the days immediately following September 11th, 2001, Union Square had become the main gathering point for “peace” speak-outs, and the Park back then was filled with chalked messages of New Yorkers searching for loved ones and expressing their desire for “No War” and for peace. (If only they’d listened to the Voices of Union Square Park back then…)

When I finally got to the Gandhi statue, a spirited group was flyering the crowd. Artists had painted and set up signs on every table. Official-looking posters, signed by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, adorned nearby trees as well as the Park’s four prominent statues. These posters, with UPC-bar codes (see the photo above); were each sponsored by a different corporation, and cited the kind of tree that would be cut down, signifying the privatization of our public space. (The sign in the above photo states: Property of Bank of America, Tree # USP6 Bloomberg Gingko, To be cut down and its plot privatized.)

Later, we met up with the folks from Critical Mass who were about to embark on their monthly bike ride, which gathers at Union Square. Street artists were everywhere! Once they’d closed up their tables, many helped hand out flyers and carried signs such as: “Stop Park Privatization,” “Stop Harassing Artists” “Green Market – Yes, Artists – Yes, Privatization – No.”

The Park itself was abuzz that night with all sorts of political and artistic projects. “Free Tibet” protesters set up one hundred white candles encased in glass containers all along the Main Plaza. 9/11 Truth activists collected signatures. Musicians, dancers, tourists, pounded out the cadences of a new counterculture emerging. Union Square on Arbor Day: It was an amazing tribute and example of a great use of public space.

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Thank you to Rebecca, Mitchel, Robert L., Elizabeth, Gloria, Joel K., Tony, Miriam, Ned, Alex, Ernie, Jessie, Sharon, Linda, Carl, Kevin, Suzannah, Susan (and partner), Ben, ALL the street artists, and anyone else I inadvertently left out for your help, support, and great activism around this event.

Support Union Square Park * Upcoming Events Tues. Apr. 22 and Fri. Apr 25

NYC Parks Advocates and local Union Square community groups are filing a lawsuit to stop the city’s redesign of Union Square Park – to end the privatization and stop the destruction of public space and mature trees. The announcement will take place Tuesday, April 22nd at 11 a.m. at Union Square Park on 16th Street between Union Sq East and West in front of the Lincoln Statue.

It seems like a continuous dance … community groups having to file lawsuits to attempt to get New York City to proceed in the manner in which they should be proceeding anyway taking the community into account, not reducing the public gathering space, leaving mature trees where they are, not selling out the community to corporate interests.

Support is needed and please show up if you can.

In other news, working with NYC Street artists and others in planning an event at Union Square on Friday, April 25th (Arbor Day) from 6-8 p.m. — Save the Date! — more details to be posted later today or tomorrow. Bring your creative spirit.

NYC Parks Department: No record of number of trees felled at Randall’s Island

Metro NY reporter Patrick Arden reported Monday that New York City has no record of the number of trees felled at Randall’s Island for the “controversial sports fields” run by private corporations they are pushing to place there. The city is currently in court over this issue. It is estimated that thousands of trees were destroyed on Randall’s Island.

“Contractors are required to have forestry permits issued by the Parks Department before removing trees,” the article states. This information is provided by Henry Stern, former NYC Parks Commissioner prior to Adrian Benepe. Current Parks Commissioner Benepe seems to take any opportunity to cut down trees, particularly if it provides a way to privatize public space.

Metro has been trying to obtain the forestry permits but the Parks Department has refused their requests.

At Washington Square Park, the document that went out for contractors’ Bids had a blank space where the Forestry Department’s sign-off was supposed to be. Eleven 50-to-100 year old trees have been cut down at Washington Square Park thus far. No one knows what the total number will be.

Doesn’t this call for oversight of Mayor Bloomberg’s Parks Department? There needs to be a moratorium on their tree destruction and some careful thought as to how we utilize our public space — in ways that benefit people, not corporations.

Bloomberg MillionTreesNYC: What I really think about trees

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I have no idea how NYC Mayor Michael (“No One’s Ever called me a Tree Hugger Before”) Bloomberg really truly deeply feels about trees but his MillionTreesNYC “initiative” strikes me as mostly bluster and p.r. In case you missed the news, Mayor Bloomberg has designated April MillionTreesNYC Month.

Assessing the # of trees that have hit the chopping block during his administration (with his Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe), it becomes clear that when there is a chance to privatize or add a corporate interest to a public space, in Mayor Bloomberg’s book, it’s time for the fellows with the chain saws to move in.

No matter what Mayor Bloomberg’s press releases say, that is not “green” nor “sustainable” nor “ecological.” (Click here for a refresher on “greenwashing.”)

Nor is it how I think our city Parks Department is supposed to function — putting private interests over the care and stewardship of our city trees, open space and wildlife. You can read a previous entry on this here.

Trees that once stood in our boroughs prior to the Bloomberg administration:

*11 trees at Washington Square Park felled thus far to align the fountain — Naming rights sold to Tisch Family. Tisch Fountain, anyone? — with the Arch

*THOUSANDS of trees at Randall’s Island levied for private development to swoop in

*400 trees destroyed from two Bronx Parks, Mullally and Macombs parks, paved over for Yankee Stadium

*Over 105 trees sacrificed at East River Park for its “reconstruction”

And on the way:

*The proposal by Parks Commissioner Benepe to destroy 14 trees at Union Square Park to expand the restaurant space for his friend restauranteur Danny Meyer; and,

*Thousands of trees at Ridgewood Reservoir/Highland Park in Queens to cover over the naturally occurring landscape with Benepe’s favorite dangerous synthetic material: artificial turf.

At Washington Square Park, no one actually knows how many trees are coming down in later Phases of the City’s redesign plan. However, upon a closer look recently at the widening of the paths at the Park to accommodate machinery, it looks awfully tenuous how the living trees are being treated and questionable how many will survive the city’s “renovation.” (Trees affected by construction don’t die immediately so we wouldn’t see the results of this for 8-10 years.)

I think the picture above is fairly accurate in representing Mayor Bloomberg’s relationship to NYC’s trees. Something is wrong with the Mayor’s p.r. machine and how smoothly it is able to hide these statistics and machinations. (Yes, I know that’s what good p.r. people do but hopefully – ? – the media would see through it.)

*Thank you to the Queens Crap blog for unearthing this Bloomberg photo. They cover steadfastly the craziness that too often represents our city government and how it relates to the over-development of the borough of Queens, in ways that affect us all!

In the news: MillionTreesNYC Month, NY City Council, Randall’s Island

In the News Today …

  • Metro new york covers Mayor Bloomberg’s hypocrisy in declaring April “MillionTreesNYC Month.” Metro writer Patrick Arden follows the Parks Department’s seemingly endless acts of arborcide across the five boroughs. Perhaps we’re all missing the point – maybe Mayor Bloomberg’s actual goal is to chop DOWN a Million Trees in NYC?
  • New York City Council Parks Committee Chair Helen Foster (Bronx) received her own bit of press today in the New York Times, “Conspicuous absence on Congestion Pricing Vote.” She is cited for being the only City Council member absent for this “important” vote on Monday(3/31).

Although the Times says that Council Member Foster stood up to the Mayor on the Yankee Stadium deal (which gave away Bronx parkland), it’s not exactly the full story. Ultimately, she came out against it, but, in what was a key measure early on, she introduced the legislation before the Committee on State and Federal Legislation which gave Albany the “go-ahead to alienate the parks.” (Metro NY, “How the South Bronx lost its parks to Yanks,” March 14, 2006)

The Times’ article takes a shot at the City Council when they state that council members “have provided little resistance to the mayor’s initiatives in recent years.” Could that be linked to Christine Quinn’s emergence as Speaker of the Council?

  • Apparently, thousands of trees have already been sacrificed on Randall’s Island but at least people will be able to play tennis. (Randall’s Island is run by the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation, another example of the “public-private partnership” of which Mayor Bloomberg, and Giuliani before him, is such a big proponent.) There are 100-150 fewer tennis courts in Manhattan than there were in the ’70’s, according to the managing partner of Sportime, the private corporation “breaking ground” tomorrow(4/3). He does not delve into how many fewer trees there are.

Connect the Dots: A guide to the NYC Parks Department –Washington Sq Park and Union Sq Park “Redesigns”

Washington Square Park and Union Square Park are both in the midst of redesigns by New York City. There are some striking similarities in how these controversial plans of two historic parks initially got pushed through despite community disapproval and widespread negative public opinion.

A Primer on how the New York City Parks Department — headed by Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe at the behest of Mayor Bloomberg — works:

  • Community requests some repairs of Park

At Washington Square Park, the background is a bit murkier as far as who initiated the discussion with the Parks Department but most everyone agreed that the Parks Department had let the Park fall into disrepair and it needed some basic fixing (roads repaired and cracks in paths paved) and a tune-up.

At Union Square Park, in 2002, City Council Member Margarita Lopez was able to allocate $1.9 million from City funds expressly for the improvement of two playgrounds on both sides of the pavilion (on the north end).

  • Local Community Board Votes

At Washington Square Park, in 2005, Community Board 2 in Manhattan initially approved the city’s “renovation” plans — a flawed vote since essential information was withheld by the Parks Department about the redesign elements. (Community Board 2 later rescinded its approval in 2007.)

At Union Square Park, Community Board 5 (also, Manhattan) “approved a new design for the north end of the square with the stipulation that the city would contemplate the pavilion housing ‘cultural institutions (and) community groups … in addition to restauranteurs.” (Metro, March 21st, 2008)

Note: Community Boards votes are largely “advisory” and are not binding in any way. However, they are utilized in the court of public opinion and it is considered important for City Agencies to gain their approval. City Council Members like to point to their approval – when it suits them.

  • Crucial Information Withheld and Subsequently Discovered; Parks Department Dishonest With the Public

After numerous rounds of meetings with the NYC Parks Department about Washington Square Park’s “renovation,” the community discovered that the presentations omitted key information: that there was a major reduction in the amount of public space based on the redesign plan; that the Tisch Family had been given naming rights to the historic fountain; etc.

At Union Square Park, despite city assurances that they were considering the Community Board’s wishes for community groups to utilize the pavilion, it was discovered recently that the city had “already applied for building permits to put a restaurant in the pavilion.” C.B. 5 member Kevin Finnegan was quoted as saying “The building plans are for a restaurant — it has a kitchen and seating for 120 people.”
(Metro, March 21st, 2008)

  • Historic Elements of Park Treated with Contempt by Bloomberg Administration

The aspects that make Washington Square Park historically a free speech gathering place and a great overall public space were treated with disdain by the Bloomberg Administration. Their plan is to cut away public space to control public gatherings and un-permitted performances. They are ruining the historic nature of the park, dismantling the large circular Fountain, which also serves as a public rallying venue, rebuilding it in a smaller version eight yards away with vast reduction of the ad-hoc seating and renaming it (a plaque on each side) for the billionaire Tisch Family.

The Union Square Park Pavilion’s history is primarily known as the space where numerous political demonstrations occurred. The first Labor Day Parade in 1882 ended up at the northern end of Union Square at the Pavilion.

  • Budget Swells ; Corporate Entities Enter Picture

At Washington Square Park, repairs could have been accomplished with the $6 million the Parks Department allegedly had on hand for Washington Square Park but instead a $16 million budget was put into play with financing by the Tisch Family ($2.5 million) and NYU ($1 million). Current “designer” of the redesign, George Vellonakis, is on the record as stating that half of the money will come from private donors. Thus far, no others have been named but the budget for Phase I alone has skyrocketed from $6 million to $13 million.

The $1.9 million that Council Member Lopez secured for Union Square Park has never been spent. In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg himself (and greeted by hecklers) “announced the city would kick in $8 million* to fund a new $14 million renovation of the entire north end.” It was announced that “the balance (was) being paid by the Union Square Partnership, the area’s business improvement district, which currently helps take care of the park.” (Metro, January 25th, 2007) *The City’s contribution is now $11.75 million and the entire project is projected at $20 million. In addition, an “anonymous donor” has given $5 million towards the project, contingent on a restaurant being in the pavilion. (New York Times, January 28, 2007) The Parks Department of course insisted initially that there was no such stipulation but the truth has since been revealed.

  • Reduction of Historic Public Space

Presently, Washington Square Park is scheduled to lose 23 percent of public space around the historic fountain.

Union Square Park will see a widening of the street at 16th, and a reduction of the space allocated to the famous GreenMarket (The GreenMarket was interestingly enough founded by Parks Commissioner Benepe’s father, Barry) – largely responsible for helping revive the area and neighborhood – as well as reduction of green space around Pavilion and chopping down of numerous trees (see next item).

  • Trees Seen as Expendable for Corporate Interests

In Phase I ALONE of the Washington Square Park redesign, up to 16 trees in the Northwest Quadrant have been deemed ‘in the way’ of the city’s plans. Thus far, 11 have been axed. There is no word on what tree destruction will happen during Phase II.

At Union Square Park, 14 trees are inexplicably headed for the chopping block to expand the restaurant space at the Pavilion.

Note: We’d like to reflect for a moment on the fact that these plans are coming from our City’s “Parks” Department. Hopefully, you’ve taken that in…

  • Conflicts of Interest

Controversial designer of the “aligned” version of Washington Square Park, George Vellonakis, is allegedly on the board of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation which strangely enough took no position on the redesign of this landmarked historic Park, while seemingly taking strong positions on every other issue of redesign in the Village.

At Union Square Park, Restauranteur Danny Meyer — who is likely to helm the proposed restaurant at Union Square Park — is also co-chair of the Union Square Partnership (a BID – business improvement district organization) which is putting up a large part of the money to redesign the north end of the Pavilion.

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There are many other aspects to Washington Square Park’s muddied approval “process” that we will go into at another time (“The Gerson-Quinn Agreement,” the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Arts Commission approvals, etc.) but they don’t apply to what happened – thus far – at Union Square Park. There are enough similarities and alarming details outlined above without adding anything else at the moment.

“Crimes Against Nature:” The NYC Parks Department

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Another story appeared over the weekend in the New York Times(3/22) “In a City Park, a Crime Against Nature” about the killing of 35 cedar trees in Inwood Hill Park.

I’m amazed at the ability of the Parks Department to spin things.

Forestry worker Katerli Bounds, who discovered the “ruined cedars,” told the Times, “It’s kind of disheartening.”

Well, yeah. It was kind of disheartening when the Parks Department slaughtered 11 old trees at Washington Square Park for the misguided decision to “align” the fountain with the Arch. It was kind of disheartening when the Bronx lost 300 to 400 trees at two parks for building of a new Yankee Stadium. It was kind of disheartening when Parks Department destroyed 105 trees at East River Park during its “reconstruction.” It was kind of disheartening to learn that Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe wants to cut down 14 majestic trees at Union Square Park to make room for Danny Meyer, who is also on the board of the Union Square Partnership – the local BID(business improvement district), to have a restaurant there in the historic pavilion.

Disheartening?

If the 35 trees slaughtered at Inwood Hill Park are deemed arborcide, then I’d say that Parks Commissioner Benepe has quite a record on his hands.

How is it against the law for a stranger to kill 35 trees on City Parks land and yet for the Parks Department — in the interest of privatization of our Parks — to ax multiple numbers (tens. hundreds. thousands.) of healthy trees, that is just fine?

How does one qualify as arborcide with a fine and jail time and the other doesn’t?

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In other Parks news, Metro reported on March 20th, that the cost for building replacement parkland “as part of the controversial Yankee Stadium project has jumped 122 percent since 2006 — and 280 percent since the team first proposed taking Macombs Dam and Mullaly parks in 2004.”

(At Washington Square Park, budget for Phase I alone has jumped from $6 million to $13 million. Original total budget for two phases of this unwanted “plan”: $16 million.)

Commissioner Benepe stated at the City Council hearing on Wednesday 3/19 that the Parks Department is “committed to replacing parkland” with tree replacement of 8000 trees “to mitigate the ones cut” in the Bronx for the Stadium.

Benepe stated, “It’s going to be hard to find room to plant all the trees we plan to plant.”

(That sounds like responsible policy, doesn’t it?)

At Washington Square Park, in Phase I alone, they stated up to 16 trees are up for chopping (11 thus far) but there would be up to 39 REPLACEMENT trees. That’s 23 additional trees. So it’s all good — according to the Parks Department and the City Council. Except it’s not.

Parks Department Commissioner Benepe’s spin is clever and it’s manipulative. He cannot cavalierly advocate for the destruction of our city trees — and for the destruction of our city, via endless privatization and homogenization of public space — and then state that it’s magically okay because there will be “new trees planted.” The Parks Department is supposed to act as STEWARDS for the trees, NOT — as per Mayor Bloomberg’s directive — for Danny Meyer and the Tisch Family and NYU.

When will this end? And how do we get this to stop?

Who determines who is a tree killing “madman?”

New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe is responsible for the felling of eleven 50-to-100 year old trees at Washington Square Park thus far.

(The prominent tree in the center of this picture was axed by the Parks Department, as were all the wonderful trees that lined the fountain area.)

300-400 trees were destroyed from two Bronx Parks to create the new Yankee Stadium. Benepe has proposed killing 14 trees at Union Square Park to make additional room for an upscale restaurant. Yesterday, at the City Council hearings on the Parks Department budget, I discovered that he wants “thousands” of trees to hit the chopping block — according to activists in Queens — to put in the controversial and potentially dangerous artificial turf that he is such a fan of at Ridgewood Reservoir/Highland Park.

It makes me wonder — who determines who is a tree killing “madman?”

If one gives the order, yet doesn’t hold the ax, isn’t it the same?

See following story.

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From the New York Daily News on March 16th…

Tree Killing ‘madman’ axes Inwood

Police and parks officials are hunting for a “madman” who chopped down 30 young red-cedar trees in Inwood Hill Park with an ax last week.

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said this is the second case of arborcide in the upper Manhattan park.

“I have no idea why somebody would do it,” said Benepe. “It appears to be a serial tree killer. It’s a crime against nature.”

The trees were planted in 1996 as part of a plan to reestablish woodlands in the 196-acre park. Parks workers found the small trees, between 4 and 8 feet tall, on their sides Thursday.

“It’s really discouraging that a madman with an ax would deliberately kill trees,” Benepe said.

“It’s crushing,” said Jennifer Hoppa, administrator of Northern Manhattan Parks.

Police are investigating, and parks officials are posting flyers and offering a $500 reward.

Under the city’s “arborcide law,” anyone who damages, destroys or otherwise harms a street tree or park tree faces a $15,000 fine and up to one year in jail.

Anyone with information should call the 34th Precinct stationhouse at (212) 927-2640.

“But if you see somebody with an ax or a saw, call 911,” Benepe said.

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