By Heather Greaves
As I've mentioned before, some people just don't seem to like trees very much, and some of the more dramatic incidents of anti-treeism made it into my pervious posts. But in the last couple of weeks, I've been spending some time at the NYC Parks Department helping to catalogue complaints (and other correspondence -- luckily it's not just complaints), and I'm getting a better idea of why people complain. Not only the big complaints (like the rare entirely impassable sidewalk), but the smaller-scale, more quotidien complaints that arrive by the hundreds during the spring and fall planting seasons.
But before I get into that, I want to say that the Central Forestry office is a pretty fabulous place. We can rest assured that the people behind our new street trees are genuine tree people, who genuinely believe in greening New York. They work in a fairly normal-looking office space -- wide open with low-walled cubicles, where most people are staring at their computers amid a quiet hum of office conversation. But it's the only office I've been in where the overheard snippets of conversation are things like, "...yeah, but she asked for crabapples." Or, "Those Cornus from last week, are they getting guards?" Or, "He said it was rats. Do you know if it could be rats burrowing?" Meanwhile, foresters come and go, checking in for a phone call or two and then heading back out to check on their trees. It's all about the trees.
Lots of complaints are all about trees too. Most of the complaints come to the Parks department via 311. What I'm cataloguing are brief summaries of the calls, which are invariably in ALL CAPS, and have a third-person detachment and telegrammatic brevity that sometimes lends unintended humor or irony to the content. (For example, after what was obviously a long, drawn out rant by one caller, a 311 operater ends one summary quite succintly with the unemotional observation, "CALLER IS IRATE.")
The recurring complaint that I found the most intriguing was the one that appeared as infinitely various forms of the following:
"CALLER STATES THAT CITY PLANTED TREE IN FRONT OF HIS PROPERTY. HE DID NOT ASK FOR TREE AND WAS NOT INFORMED OF PLANTING. WANTS IT REMOVED."
A lot is wrapped up in those three short lines. It's interesting that there's not actually any distaste for the tree itself, or at least that's not what the caller mentions. I think what the complaint reflects is a subtler truth: the tree-planting is a rude awakening for people who assume that they control the sidewalk in front of their house. They don't, as the form response from the Parks Department gently reminds them. The city owns the sidewalk, and it's treating these trees as a necessary sidewalk infrastructure improvement, like putting in a new lamp post or a bigger stop sign. Adjacent property owners don't have any say over those improvements, either, but there's something about trees (perhaps that they're often considered only ornamental) that arouses people's indignance at not being consulted.
And to the Parks Department's credit, it refuses to be bullied. You can complain until you turn blue, but unless you can show that the tree will block your driveway or cause some other seriously debilitating issue -- and foresters do go out and re-check the sites in response to serious complaints -- you're getting the tree. If it hasn't been planted yet and you're very persuasive, you may achieve a concession for a smaller species or a slight relocation, but protests about your view, your garbage pick-up spot, and your reluctance to sweep leaves elicit only a polite explanation of why trees are good for the whole city.
Which seems perfectly legitimate to me.