Vol. 15, No. 14 July 18 - 31, 2002



     
 

Strengthening a Community at its Roots
Tree Lover Takes Action to Protect Neighborhood Greenery

By HEATHER HADDON

When Mildred Levine used to describe the North Fordham area of decades past to her granddaughter, she always mentioned the trees. "She used to tell me about what a beautiful area it was in the '40s and '50s, that there were trees everywhere," says Ellen Amy Levine, now a 39- year-old resident of the same neighborhood. "She missed them."

Levine, a Columbia University graduate student, also pined for the shade common to suburban communities. When her apartment's landlord cut down the five-story-tall maple in her backyard - the only tree on her entire block - Levine knew she had to do something proactive.

She founded the Bronx Treekeepers, an all-volunteer corps of local tree defenders, in 1999 to tackle the lack of greenery that plagues the entire city. The group's mission is to strengthen the trees still standing through basic restoration and maintenance techniques.

New York's trees need all the nurturing they can get. The city spends only about one-fifth the national average on tree planting and care and its tree cover (17 percent) ranks low compared to other U.S. cities. The Community Board 7 region scores even lower at roughly 10 percent.

"I started noticing while traveling around the neighborhood that many homeowners cut down their trees," remembers Levine. "They don't think they are important."

Luckily, Levine does. Not only did she miss the cool summer shade and animal life which trees bring, but she knew that more vegetation could help temper the pollution and high asthma rates in her community.

Through fliers and word of mouth, Levine amassed a small crew of volunteers committed to bringing nature back to their neighborhood. "We need as much greenery in the city as we can get," says Bob Schramm, one of the group's first volunteers. "There is no sense in letting trees die."

About 10 committed Treekeepers, briefed by the non-profit Trees New York in techniques of tree restoration and care, adopted a two-block residential strip of Briggs Avenue between Fordham Road and East 196th Street. In the fall of 2000, Treekeepers pruned and protected 30 Ginkgo Bilboas - the hardy species whose mitten-like leaves constitute much of urban greenery.

The Treekeepers' first target was the candy bar wrappers and beer bottles typically wedged in the roots of sidewalk trees. On average, "there is enough trash to fill three garbage bags from each tree pit," Levine estimates. After digging up this refuse and aerating the soil, volunteers finished with water and mulch.

Their newfound forestry skills paid off. Revisiting Briggs Avenue in spring 2001, Levine found greener leaves and larger branches on all the street's Ginkgos.

The Treekeepers' hard work has not gone unnoticed. Community members have responded to the brigade with enthusiasm. Remarkably, says Levine, in a "neighborhood that doesn't seem very community minded, people of all ages come by and say how wonderful this [work] is."

Levine has steadily labored to help the trees, and the Treekeepers grow. "I'd like to see the group have a serious presence in the neighborhood," says Levine, who is looking to focus on community education along with the tree preservation.

To date, most of the group's funding has come from donations and the Treekeepers' own pockets - a phenomenon Levine hopes to change through more volunteers and foundation grants.

Levine, who will graduate from Columbia in October, knows she will continue to spread her love of trees and her neighborhood as a special education teacher.

"I have had family in this neighborhood for 60 years, and this is where I have my roots," she says. "I want to say, when eventually I do leave, that I did something positive for this community."

Ed. note: If you are interested in becoming a Treekeepers volunteer, contact Ellen Amy Levine at (917) 364-5792.

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