East River Park trees

New York, NY, USA

Save East River

A man holds a sign in the East River Park Amphitheater

New York, NY, USA

The trees in Manhattan’s East River Park – 991 of them, according to the latest count – are looking particularly beautiful right now, all in full leaf. But for many, if not all, this will be their final summer. This winter, the bulldozers and chainsaws move in.

There’s general agreement that this part of Lower Manhattan needs some kind of flood defenses. Hurricane Sandy flooded some of the buildings closest to the river to a depth of a foot or more. Rising sea levels and more intense weather can only bring more of the same. But to many people the city’s East Side Coastal Resiliency project seems unnecessarily heavy-handed, a brutal solution imposed from above in a muddled and suspiciously secretive manner. Under the plan, the entire park will be leveled, all its trees cut down, and the whole place buried under eight feet of landfill before being built up again. A lot of people have been left wondering why quite such a ’scorched earth’ approach is required, and the answers given by the city have often seemed unconvincing or evasive.

Today’s protest in the park, organized by East River Park Action and its allies, focused on the trees that will be the first victims of the project. Participants were encouraged to pick a favorite tree and spend time with it, touching it, hugging it, or simply standing silently beside it.

When I first moved to New York, East River Park didn’t strike me as a particularly beautiful park. A narrow strip of greenery bounded on one side by the FDR Drive – six lanes of fast-moving, fume-spewing traffic – you could never forget the presence of the city. Over time, though, I came to appreciate it more and more. Running in East River Park kept me sane through the pandemic. And exploring the park, I began to find odd angles of beauty, corners where sky and water and vegetation and the changing seasons intersect to create something quite lovely. Above all, I developed a sense for how intensely the park is used by the people who live here. On any day there will be runners and walkers and anglers. People play tennis and basketball and volleyball, they come to skate and cycle, they hold large cheerful picnics on weekends or sunbathe on the grass. Small wonder that there was general outrage when the mayor’s office casually announced that all of that was going to disappear for – in the most optimistic of estimates – a minimum of five years.

There’s still widespread attachment here to the original winning proposal from the Bjarke Ingalls Group, which envisioned a subtler approach to the reconstruction of the park, one that seemed to acknowledge the park as an ecosystem in its own right. It’s still not entirely clear why this proposal ended up being dismissed, and why a wholesale rethinking of the plan was necessary. Perhaps it was that BIG roused the unquiet ghost of Robert Moses by threatening to do something that might affect the FDR Drive. But in any case, the city’s much larger and more costly plan looks like being the shape of the future now.

And the first victims will be the trees.