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Tree-pocalypse Now: City chopping round the clock in East River Park

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Mayor de Blasio’s swan song is the sound of chainsaws destroying East River Park.

Just as park activists feared, workers continued to chop down trees in the East Side park on Saturday. The outgoing mayor is hell-bent on destroying the treasured Downtown oasis as one of his final parting acts before vacating City Hall at the end of this month.

In fact, it appeared the work would go on around the clock right through the weekend. After starting early at 6 a.m., hard hats were still at it late Saturday evening, working under floodlights, at 10 p.m.

One park activist said a worker actually had told her the chainsawing would be going on 24/7. Tommy Loeb, a member of East River Park ACTION, reported around 5:30 p.m. that he could see from his apartment window that the small soccer field at Grand Street was being destroyed at that moment.

A protester at Saturday’s press conference. (Photo by © Jefferson Siegel)

The legal team for the opposition to the park-razing resiliency project will be back in the Court of Appeals on Monday at 8:30 a.m. They’ll be asking for clarity on what they believe is an already existing temporary restraining order (T.R.O.) that they say should be stopping the work.

Nearly 100 people gathered early Saturday afternoon in front of the new construction fence stretching across the park at Stanton Street. Behind them, shielded from view by a green tarp on the chain-link fence, chainsaws roared and construction vehicles growled and beeped. Above the fence, a worker could be seen in a cherry-picker bucket, steadily chainsawing down a tree from its top, section by section. As he rapidly whittled down the tree, before long it had vanished from view behind the fence.

In the fenced-off southern half of the park behind the press conference, workers continued to destroy East River Park. (Photo by © Jefferson Siegel)

Standing with the protesters was Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou. She accused Mayor de Blasio and those other politicians who support the work moving forward of being “above the law,” calling it “corrosive to our legal system.”

“Stop the work! Stop the work!” the crowd chanted.

“There has to be alienation exercised here,” Niou declared. “We have said it repeatedly and we have to make sure it’s said here on the record.”

The community lawsuit’s main argument is that the state Legislature never voted on whether to “alienate” the park — meaning to allow the property to be removed from use as a public park for an extended period of time. The city denies the vote is needed.

Workers used heavy machinery to lift giant logs that were formerly majestic trees of up to 82 years old. (Photo by © Jefferson Siegel)

Two other state politicians, state Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, who are on record previously supporting an alienation vote for the East Side Coastal Resiliency project, did not attend the press conference.

Village attorney Arthur Schwartz said it’s clear who is telling the workers to keep destroying the park despite a court date being set for Monday.

“All efforts should be focused on the Mayor’s Office, the Police commissioner, the Parks Department,” he said, “that’s who’s giving the orders.”

He fumed that the city notified him only late Thursday afternoon that it would start cutting down the trees the next day, which did not leave him enough time to try to stop the work, opening the door to the weekend of tree carnage.

“It’s fairly unusual that orders of the court are disobeyed,” he said. “Bill de Blasio wants to just get this done and in the ground before Eric Adams is mayor. He wants to make sure Eric Adams doesn’t have any way to deal with it.”

Attorney Arthur Schwartz attempted to hand copies of a T.R.O. and contempt motion to police officers, who refused to accept them.
(Photo by © Jefferson Siegel)
Police officers refused to be “served” with copies of the T.R.O., so attorney Arthur Schwartz placed them on top of their shoes or on the ground in front of them. (Photo by © Jefferson Siegel)

Kathryn Freed, Schwartz’s co-counsel on the case, lives right across the street from the park.

“What’s the hurry?” she echoed. “Why not let Adams weigh in on this?”

A date of Dec. 20 had been set for a hearing by the Court of Appeals in the ongoing case of the community lawsuit. But clearly mayor felt it was too long to way until then.

Schwartz and Freed have filed a contempt motion against the city for continuing to chop down trees in East River Park in defiance of the T.R.O.

A detail of about a dozen police were on hand. After the press conference, Schwartz “served” some of the officers with a copy of the T.R.O. None would accept it, so he just dropped it on top of their shoes or on the ground in front of them.

“There…served,” he said, after placing the document on one cop’s foot.

At one point, the protesters started pushing and rocking the fence’s gate, but police made them stop. There were no arrests.

Roger Manning, a co-founder of M.A.G.I.C., a group suing over a climate-change center planned on Governors Island, said East River Park’s oliteration is just another part of what he called de Blasio’s “reign of terror.” Upzonings and destruction of public land, he said, are going on from the Elizabeth Street Garden to the Soho/Noho rezoning “and just everywhere.”

The East River Park dance oval on Saturday afternoon was an eerie scene of decimation. The workers’ procedure is to first slash off the trees’ branches, then fell the trunks in segments, starting from the top. (Photo by © Jefferson Siegel)

Sarah Wellington, an activist with 1000 Trees 1000 People, said the city and contractors know they will get fined for doing the work, but don’t care about paying the money.

“Without these trees, we are going to roast here,” she warned. “We are guaranteed more heat-related deaths. These trees will never grow back with the extreme heat conditions we face with climate change.”

So far, workers have turned the formerly tree-ringed dance oval north of the tennis courts into a wasteland of branchless, spindly tree trunks that they are continuing to chainsaw down and chop up into segments.

“It looks like they are working their way down through the park,” said Fannie Ip.

One park activist was arrested Saturday morning as they were protesting the construction vehicles entering the park’s southern end at Montgomery Street. Two others were arrested the previous morning, reportedly for trespassing, for trying to present the T.R.O. to the workers.

Mark Szuskiewicz, an activist from Bay Ridge, noted that an earlier version of the coastal-resiliency project that would have required closing a lane of traffic on the F.D.R. Drive at night would have lasted only three-and-a-half years. Meanwhile, the current “elevated park” plan, which will raise the park 8 feet to 10 feet, is slated to take at least five years, he said.

The park defenders planned to be back at Montgomery Street at 6 a.m. Sunday. There will also be another gathering Sunday at the Stanton Street fence at 2 p.m., at which the park activists will eulogize all the dead trees.

5 Comments

  1. Miriam Miriam December 13, 2021

    I hope de Blasio for his part in the obvious corruption regarding this obvious corruption ends up in Rikers. Maybe he’ll pay more attention to the chaos happening there once he’s a fellow prisoner.

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