In 1982, African-Americans mobilized “the largest civil disobedience in the South since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., marched through Alabama” against a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) landfill in Warren County, N.C. These protests lead to studies showing how hazardous wastes were exported largely to communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. The protesters’ human instinct to protect their homes and their families gave birth to the environmental justice movement.
Fast forward over 30 years to 2019, when the United Nations released an alarming report predicting that over 1 million of species of animals and plants are on the verge of extinction, with grave consequences for humanity. The report was a call for action for everyone to Think Globally and Act Locally before it is too late.
But as long as environmental discrimination—towards people of color and those who lack economic and political clout—exists, the call for action can’t be fulfilled by many of those marginalized communities.
The city, via the parks department, should heed the United Nation’s call for action and lead in environmental issues, including environmental justice. But NYC Parks lags on those issues in its own stewardship of our public green spaces. Overdevelopment of our green spaces, the lack of adequate public spaces, removal of native mature trees to be replaced by ornamental nonnative trees and the lack of maintenance funding to care for our parks and the trees: All of this tends to happen in communities of color and low- income communities.
In a private meeting last month, the NYC Parks Department unveiled its plan for the second phase of restitution planting for the Pelham Parkway Reconstruction project. Over 70 trees were removed for the reconstruction, which is in progress. Without any input from the residents of Pelham Parkway North, the department announced that the bulk of our replacement tress will be planted on the South side of the parkway. A smaller number of non-native, less costly trees are proposed on the North Side, at least west of Williamsbridge Road, which is the area most used by the neighborhood’s lower-income people.
This was the first-time Friends of Pelham Parkway was invited to their meetings despite months of requests to be included in the process. Friends of Pelham Parkway is an all-volunteer group founded in mid-2017 to deal with the lack of maintenance and care of Pelham Parkway North. On a shoestring budget of $1,300, we do monthly cleanups, mulching trees and planting flowers including daffodils. Our efforts engaged the community to not only join our efforts but also to appreciate the beauty of the parkway, which resulted in less littering.
Pelham Parkway North, west of Williamsbridge Road, is a low-income community of color—including NYCHA residents—that has historically been underserved. This section of the Parkway is a sacrificial zone when it comes to trees and tree maintenance.
When Phase 1 was completed, the restitution trees for the trees removed on the South Side were planted on the South Side. Yet in Phase 2, the restitution trees for trees removed on the North side will be planted largely on the South Side. The NYC Department of Design and Construction decided not to follow its standard practice of tree planting after the project is completed. In fact, this is the only project where trees planted in restitution will be done before the project is completed.
At this hour-long private meeting, there was no room for discussion and it grew quite heated when NYC Parks made baseless assertions about soil erosion on the North side. NYC Parks said nonnative trees species were chosen over native trees to complement the existing trees, a decision that is subjective to one’s taste. When Friends of Pelham Parkway requested soil studies, the planting of native trees, that tree planting be delayed until after the completion of the project, and a public meeting, we were ignored and NYC Parks has not responded since then to our request for information via email.
Environmental discrimination is more than being dumped on, and more than the inequalities of resources. It’s also about being unseen, unheard and undervalued.
Call us protesters or environmentalists. Call us selfish or justice warriors. Call us what you think but just don’t take away our trees.
Roxanne Delgado is a member of Friends of Pelham Parkway.
The Parks Department responds: Pelham Parkway is an important historic landscape that we are working to preserve and restore in the midst of DDC’s large, multi-year critical infrastructure replacement project. Our ultimate goal is to provide a thriving tree canopy on both the north and south sides, consistent with the historic design of the Parkway, that will provide the entire, surrounding community with cleaner air, more shade, better water absorption and flood protection, and a host of other benefits for decades to come. As a part of DDC’s Pelham Parkway Phase II project, 332 trees will be planted on Pelham Parkway—221 on the north side and 121 on the south side. Tree plantings occur as construction is finished by section, and will not be fully complete until the project ends in 2023.