Tearing Out the Trees

At PS/IS 217 After the Green Roofs Campaign: Damaging the Environment

David Stone
After destroying all the trees on PS/IS's north side, a contractor began working down the row of healthy trees in the playground.
After destroying all the trees on PS/IS's north side, a contractor began working down the row of healthy trees in the playground.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

"Trees behind PS/IS are being chopped down and mulched right now," an email read. "Thought you'd like to know." It was Saturday morning, a steady snow falling, temperatures only in the 20s. "In the snow?" I asked. "Yes, indeed," was the answer.

Just over six months since we were asked to vote in favor of Green Roofs funding for PS/IS 217 and celebrated the big win, we discovered a contractor inexplicably chainsawing every tree on school property and grinding them to mulch.

On Saturday morning. In a snowstorm.

What the...?

After getting the tip from Daily contributor Eileen Gardiner, who'd spotted trees being whacked all along the alley leading to Main from the West Promenade, between Manhattan Park and the school, I hurried into winter gear and headed out into the cold.

I was especially interested because this is area from which two trees planted in honor of Roosevelt Island pioneer and groundbreaking African-American writer Alice Childress disappeared mysteriously. I hoped to marshal forces and financing to get a new tree planted in her honor.

Gardiner emailed a photo taken by another contributor, Ron Musto, (see below) showing every tree on the plot already killed and so much debris strewn strewn in the snow that it wasn't possible even to see Childress's commemorative plaque.

By the time I got there, the situation was worse. Even the stumps were gone and a truck was filled to the roof with mulch.

"Who are you guys working for, RIOC or the school?" I asked.

"The school."

(See our follow up story and image gallery.)

A Sad Story Gets Even Worse

After running a quick errand in Southtown, I walked back up Main Street to the farmers market, thinking the damage was done already, suspecting that the school had ripped out the trees to provide more free parking along the already crowded alley.

Fresh shock awaited.

The contractor hired by PS/IS 217 had wheeled his equipment around to Main Street. Cutting down and mulching of healthy trees in the school's playground area was in full progress.

One tree was laying flat on the paved surface, its limbs being taken off to be fed into the mulching truck.

I found a man who seemed to be in charge.

"Aren't these trees healthy?"

He nodded yes.

"Why are they having you cut down healthy trees?"

He shrugged, seeming puzzled himself. Just a job to be done.

What's Going On?

Back in my apartment, as soon as I got out of my coat, I sent an email to Jeff Atkinson, PS/IS's head custodian, asking why the trees were being wiped out.

I also sent requests for comment to Ali Schwayri, leader of the Roosevelt Island Tree Group, Council Member Ben Kallos who'd rewarded the school with $500,000 for the Green Roofs program and iDig2Learn's Christina Delfico who'd championed the project in the community.

(Note: Borough President Gale Brewer and Comptroller Scott Stringer contributed even more funding.)

"Sorry to hear that," Schwayri responded from vacation. "There are 4 large trees on the north side of the school that require only pruning."

Pruning will no longer be necessary. Those trees, along with the Alice Childress tributes, are gone for good.

Kallos answered that he was "reaching out" to the school but did not expect a response until Monday.

Neither Delfico nor Atkinson have responded as of this writing.

One good thing, though. After questions were raised, the destruction of the trees stopped. Three healthy trees remain standing in the playground. Whether the queries had any impact is unknown. The school isn't talking.

A Roosevelt Island Community Wound

Trees are a community resource, no matter on whose grounds they grow, providing shade, cleaning the air and improving visual appeal. We are all invested in green space, an element shrinking fast on our small island. And PS/IS is a public school, after all. Why was there no apparent concern for the public interest before such a severe reduction in our tree inventory took place?

One valid way to look at it: PS/IS 217 is set to enjoy a million dollars in tax dollar funding for a Green Roof but, at the same time, is spending more tax dollars to rip out healthy trees without explanation.

Yes, there's a possibility that the school will come back with a sound rationale for the environmental and community insult, but scratch my head as much as I might, I can't imagine one. 

But I'll keep an open mind.

My thoughts, though, keep tracking back to the super hyped Green Roofs project and how we were told it would enhance teaching about the environment and its values. What does taking down and disposing of healthy trees teach our children? What message does it send to a community that consistently supports the school?

After two days, PS/IS 217 has no answer.


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