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Northampton Neighborhood Rallies to Save Beloved Cherry Trees

The Mayor and DPW Director won’t budge on plans to chop trees for repaving

By Brian Zayatz

Seven Kwanzan cherry trees along Northampton’s Warfield Place, as well as three neighboring smaller trees, were ordained as Zen Buddhist priests on the morning of Monday, July 12th.

The trees, though admired every year by residents of the tiny side street, have received a great deal of attention this year after the city notified the neighborhood in April via letters taped to residents’ doors that due to the street’s selection for paving this year, the trees would be cut down.

The city’s announcement came just weeks before the trees’ annual bloom, which lines the street with bright pink flowers before giving way to green summer foliage. Warfield residents decided to host an event that they hoped would make known beyond their neighborhood the error the city was making in signing the trees’ death warrant, and on May 1st, about 100 people attended the neighborhood’s first festival. Intended to celebrate the life and beauty of the trees as well as the slow subsiding of the pandemic, visitors enjoyed food and music while neighbors spread the word about the city’s plans.

Monday’s gathering had a more somber air, after the city notified residents late last week to expect work to begin imminently. On short notice, neighbors organized a vigil beginning at 8am, followed by the ordination ceremony at 9am, overseen by Kanshin Ruth Ozeki, a Zen priest, novelist, and Warfield resident, as well as Kosen Greg Snyder of the Brooklyn Zen Center.

In her remarks during the ceremony, Ozeki shared a brief history of the trees. According to Ozeki, the trees were planted thirty years ago by now-75-year Warfield resident Danny Maguire, and were raised from seedlings at the Smith College greenhouses by a friend and coworker of Maguire’s, Ed Wing. Maguire now lives in assisted living, but said of his late friend that he “would be so pleased that so many people enjoy[ed the trees]” at May’s festival.

“Today is not a funeral—it is a joyful occasion,” Ozeki said at the ceremony, after sharing words from an independent arborist who disagreed with the city’s conclusion that the trees are dying anyway. “The ordination of trees is a custom that started in Thailand and spread throughout Asia,” she continued. “It is a way of protecting trees by acknowledging them as sacred, honoring their precious lives, and recognizing all that they do for us.”

The morning’s rain cleared at the start of the ceremony, during which the roughly 75 participants adorned the trees with incense, flowers, and written prayers or thoughts.

No community input

Since learning of the city’s plans, residents have remained active in attempting to understand how the plans were made, to seek compromise with the city, and raise awareness of the conflict.

In communications with the Mayor and Department of Public Works (DPW), including at a neighborhood meeting which was attended by fifty people, Warfield residents have found little satisfaction in these first two objectives. 

According to Ozeki and fellow resident Oliver Kelhammer, who met virtually with The Shoestring, the city prioritizes paving projects using an algorithm. The algorithm considers only road condition, leaving traffic levels, complaints, and resident input out of the process. Even then, only half of Warfield Place was designated a priority for repaving.

As for how the neighborhood found itself prioritized for such a drastic project, resident Kathryne Young concludes in a letter to the Gazette that “numerical algorithms and painfully shortsighted, ephemeral ‘economic savings’ drove this repavement decision… Warfield was the cheapest short street to tack onto the project because it didn’t need add-ons like sewer upgrades.”

Mayor Narkewicz and DPW Director Donna LaScaleia have done little to suggest that this is not the case. “The Mayor kept saying ‘this is the way we do things, I’m not gonna change my mind,’” said Kelhammer. “We may even have some points of agreement—nobody wants potholes—but the whole process was not participatory.” Neither the Mayor nor Director LaScaleia responded to a request for comment for this article.

Residents and allies are currently asking the Mayor for a moratorium on the work and to allow the trees to live out their natural lives, replacing them as needed. Young also told The Shoestring that the city would not provide a more detailed construction schedule, and has yet to provide contact information for the contracted company.

“My heart goes to the efforts, the incredible efforts that this neighborhood is making to just have someone in authority listen and respond honestly” said former Ward 1 City Councilor Judith Fine, who lives on a nearby street. “Donna [LaScaleia] just stood there with her arms crossed.”

“What I’ve seen [in the past in Northampton] is that when a neighborhood gets together and makes a really good pitch and really asks to be heard, what I’ve seen is that it has been heard,” Fine continued. “It seems to me that, OK, you signed a contract so that’s a certain amount of money and work. You mean to tell me you can’t take those dollars and switch it?”

“Streets are a habitat, not just a place to put cars”

Residents have also pointed out that what is presented as an improvement to the street in fact makes the neighborhood much less livable, and flies in the face of the Sustainable Northampton Comprehensive Plan.

Kelhammer showed me pictures of temperature readings he took during the recent heatwave (which he also published in the Gazette) comparing the temperature of the sidewalk on either side of the street. Under the trees, Kelhammer recorded the temperature at 85 degrees Fahrenheit; in the sun, a whopping 139 degrees—hot enough to cause second degree burns. Kelhammer noted that this was of concern to the elderly, children, pets or service animals, or anyone who might be at risk of falling. It would also raise energy costs on the street.

The neighborhood’s online petition to save the trees also points to the city’s own stated goals, such as the recently adopted Resilience and Regeneration Plan and the Sustainable Northampton Comprehensive Plan, calling for“‘focusing on people over vehicles,’ ‘preserving street trees and existing mature trees,’ and ‘expanding urban shade tree canopies.’ The Sustainable Northampton Plan also promises ‘procedural equity’ and ‘neighborhood engagement.’”

Residents also claim on their new website that the city’s plans also do not provide for sidewalk access currently accessible to two disabled residents of the street. 

“When a neighborhood is on the chopping block like this, it causes mental health stress,” Kelhammer said. “I know of two neighbors for whom it’s caused significant distress… I hate wasting my summer fighting these people. A solution exists, and we’re willing to work on it.”

Brian Zayatz is a member writer at The Shoestring. Photo credit “Save Cherry Tree Row on Warfield Place!” petition.

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