96th trees

By Arlene Kurtis

Now that almost all residential streets in Manhattan and many in other boroughs have trees lining the islands and streets, I realize it is fifty-two years since our efforts to plant trees on our busy street led the way in 1963.

In 1962, my friend, Maggie Manilla and I, decided that our park block on West 96th street would look prettier with some trees planted along its length. She was a very organized, capable person and found out from the Parks Department that London Plane trees would thrive best against the auto and bus fumes on the thoroughfare. The cost would be $100 a tree. We decided that we needed ten trees on each side of the street. The cost wasn’t so much for the trees, but for jack-hammering the sidewalk and excavating the soil where the trees would be planted. That made the cost of our plan a hefty $2000.

We set out to collect funds from the many people in the large apartment houses lining the street. My notion was that people could select the amount they wanted to contribute on this scale: a leaf was a dollar, a branch was five dollars, a tree was $100.

96th trees2We both had young children and we approached the playground mothers to spread the word. It was slow-go, although everyone liked the idea. In one apartment house, a woman said enthusiastically that she wanted two trees. I was ecstatic. She handed me two dollars. I gave her two of my colored paper leaves. A pleasant experience was ringing a bell in one apartment and finding a young man from Israel answering the door. He listened to my shpiel, told me he didn’t live on the street, but was just staying the apartment while on a mission for Israel. But then he reached for his wallet. He said, “Americans have planted a lot of trees in Israel. It’s my pleasure to help plant one in America.” I gave him the colored paper branch.

Well, the dollars were piling up, but we were far from our goal. Then Maggie got the idea of contacting a woman who headed a large charitable foundation. We went to see her and described our campaign. She congratulated us on our efforts and said she would see what she could do.

Some days later, an editorial appeared in the New York Times praising the 96th Street neighbors for pointing the way to making city more livable. That did the trick. The Goddard Neighborhood Assembly, a helping organization for the area, got behind the plan. They sent telegrams to the landlords of each building requesting their presence at a meeting, and to my surprise they all came. The director explained to them how much the residents had done to prove their interest, but now the big money had to come from them. It would improve their property, she said. The landlords were fighting rent control, and we were all renters at that time, so our relationship was iffy. One landlord posited that trees would upend the sidewalks and cause problems.

My apartment house bordered the Christian Science Church on the corner of Central Park West that had a large elm on 96th  Street that made approaching my building so pleasant. I spoke to the church director and he rose to say that his large tree had posed no problem. The landlords kicked in. And one Spring day, the tree planters came. My son, Jon, was in the Alexander Robertson pre-school on 95th Street. His class came out to watch. The photo in the New York Times shows Jon and his classmates shoveling the crumbly earth to help fill the new tree pits.

A few afternoons later, we arranged with the 24th Precinct to close the street to inaugurate our tree-lined thoroughfare. Mardi Kane, a neighbor, and I appeared at the flower district early in the morning where we were given left-over flowers by the boxful. We rode home triumphant, her convertible, top down, overflowing with flowers. The decorating moms spread them around the temporary stage and made sure that each child had a flower to take home after the celebration was over. Some children from the Amsterdam and Columbus blocks were so thrilled with their flowers, I was almost in tears.

It was a joyful time. Trees have died on the street since, bruised by cars, or of old age, but the city has faithfully replanted. Whenever I pass some of the buildings, I remember the people inside that bought the paper tokens that turned into green leaves whose trees continue to shade the walkway and rustle in the breeze.

Arlene Kurtis is the author of ‘Lila’s Hamsa: a Novel of Love and Deception.’

For other weekend history columns, click here.

HISTORY, OUTDOORS | 11 comments | permalink
    1. Nelson says:

      Wonderful story! Thank you so much for the beautiful gift which continues to enhance our UWS neighborhood!

    2. DMH says:

      Beautiful! Thank you for bringing shade and green to our city streets.

    3. Ron Kapon says:

      When they built the luxury building on the east side of Broadway between 77 & 78th St (Marshalls & CVS are ground floor tenants)they took down the trees that were there. They have not been replaced. I think that block is the only one on the UWS without trees. I assumed the building owners would have been responsible for replacing the trees? Any thoughts.

      • Jeff says:

        Ron- I can’t understand this either I walk by that block everyday and don’t understand how those trees werent replanted. How can we get the ball rolling on this?

        • Ron Kapon says:

          I volunteer at Assembly person Linda B. Rosenthal’s office. I am sure the building developer would be responsible for replacing the trees. I will forward this to Linda’s office.

    4. Elaine Kenzer says:

      We live on the farthest west segment of 96th Street, just bordering Riverside Park and the desire and effort to plant and re-plant trees is alive and well. Our neighboring landlord chose to cut down all the trees mid-block to the underpass two years ago! If you can imagine, a tree-hater, not a tree-hugger.Our neighbors contacted the Department of Parks and they kindly replanted. For a variety of reasons, including trucks backing into them,none of those little trees survived their first winter. New trees have just been planted with big protective surrounds, and they look healthy and seem to be thriving.Trees so enhance the appearance of the street and make the approach to the building pleasant and welcoming!

    5. lsilver says:

      I was a kid and lived at 12 West 96th St. when the trees were planted. I remember being there, the excitement on the street and the joyful crowd observing the event. I think of that day often, every time I take the 96th St. crosstown or walk up the street. So much of that community spirit has been lost over the years. A very different Upper West Side now.

    6. Karen says:

      This is a lovely article and many thanks for your dilligent work. Wouldn’t it be lovely if more people were as committed to our urban environment. Having moved from the suburbs a few years ago I do miss the fields of green.

    7. marie says:

      Great, uplifting, and inspiring story! NY is a big city but every neighborhood can play a part in making this town a wonderful place to live. Ours was the only residential building on our block and it sorely needed greenery. With help from the City, we got four trees and now that they’re big and strong we even have birds nesting. how about that?

    8. upperwestsideguy says:

      I so much love these great contributions and stories. It shows how people do care and how generous all people can be.It is now a heritage that must be preserved.

    9. claire cocke says:

      I lived on West 83rd St. and CPW from 1966-68. The West 83rd St had a loose block association which, during that time period, planted trees from CPW to Columbus. We also took neighborhood children to ride on the Staten Island ferry one time. These little kids were without much daytime supervision. That ‘hood sure has changed. I have b&w photos of the ferry ride.