Oct 21, 2013

Mermaids, Salty Trees and Bitter Melons

Coney Island has become a second home of late. For all the sand and surf, I am becoming very familiar with the lay of the land. I ride the bus and walk the length of Mermaid, Neptune and Surf Avenues and peek into front yards, community and private gardens and parks. Almost a year later and all around there are reminders of Hurricane Sandy: watermarks on the sides of buildings, piles of debris, long lines of people waiting for canned food and hot meals. I imagine that the lines may have existed before the storm in what is obviously a low-income area of New York, (street garbage and poverty often go hand in hand, garbage that clogs drainage systems and exacerbates flooding). What I also notice is the abundance of dead trees and even greater number of damaged and struggling trees.

Conclusive information on the quality of the soil and salinity levels since the disaster are not available. What I discovered upon the first day of digging is the absence of earthworms. Earthworms do not thrive in overly saturated soil. Earthworms die on contact with salt water. If earthworms are scarce in Coney Island then other beneficial organisms are also scarce. Were soil nutrients and PH levels altered; how has seed dispersal (or lack thereof) changed the landscape? What about habitats for bees, butterflies and birds? How was the ecosystem of Coney Island impacted and what does it mean for pollination of crops in the many community gardens I am thrilled to encounter. Homeowners make the most of every inch of soil. Beans, squash, tomato bushes and lumpy bitter melons (Momordica charantia) compete with marigolds and sunflowers. My parents would be surprised to learn that folks from Cambodia and Vietnam share their love for bitter melon or "caraili" as they are called in Trinidad.

In a quest to find a maple tree so I could talk to a bunch of forth graders about the effects of sunlight and temperature decrease on leaf color and why maple syrup on pancakes is far superior than corn syrup or any other sugary product and definitely more delicious, I discovered Sea Gate, a gated community. It is bordered on one side by a bay that offers some protection from the rising flood waters with its tree, grass and shrub studded sand dunes. Sea Gate is a community with very few black faces, including mine (a few nights a month). Russians, Orthodox Jews and Eastern Europeans, many with manicured yards cluster there. I walk past elaborately designed houses alongside ones that are being repaired and apparently uninhabited others with overgrown and weedy yards. Just outside the gates are projects and high-risers occupied by other immigrants, mostly Asians, Blacks and Hispanics.

                                                                  Sand dune on bay side

                                                          Front yard gardens on West 35 Street

                                                               Synagogue in Sea Gate

  Sunflowers and lots of tomatoes in Boardwalk Community Garden

                                                    Solidago covering dunes on the bay

                                                             Planetrees in Kaiser Park

Kaiser Park lies a few blocks east of Sea Gate. During my first visit there I discovered that I absolutely love Platanus acerifolia or London planetrees. On that particular day it had just rained and the air was misty. The peeling bark of these stately trees glistened. Oh that the leaves of this tree would turn a brilliant color in the fall instead of the dull gold color. That would be all needed to move planetrees up on my list of favorite trees. I also noticed the evenly platformed stumps of London planetrees that were felled to avoid damage to pedestrians and many truncated or dead trees evidenced by large chunks of bark fallen to reveal the dead wood inside. Planetrees and their stomps also line the streets of Sea Gate.

It is a curious thing to speak to children about the benefits and beauty of trees when all they can think of is how trees fell on cars and damaged buildings during the hurricane. Who could blame them when they too like the trees are still reeling and trying to recover. One child mentioned that his relatives died during the storm and other children have not returned to their homes. I do think that while these kids may seem resilient their parents may not be. Who needs tragedy piled upon poverty and who fights with FEMA for these families? However, scary is the world we live in when the fear of DBT (death by tree) is so great that it prevents homeowners from planting trees or when the general population view the presence of trees as negative. These same trees that continually provide us with oxygen, reduce carbon emissions, absorb storm water and reduce flooding, prevent soil erosion, supply us with food, clothing, shelter, mark the passage of time and add so much beauty to our lives.

Trees that I feared would not produce leaves in spring have indeed managed to leaf out, some better than others. Like planetrees, honeylocusts (Gleditsia triacanthos) rank high in numbers for street trees in Coney Island. They seem to have weathered the hurricane much better than most. Golden rain trees are everywhere, although rather small. Maybe they were planted only a couple years ago. Tilias are also small and did not fare well. Some look like they will not make it through the winter. Maples are less common and most are as small as the rain trees. I did find some large ones in Sea Gate on and near Maple Ave (of course). I spied a few ginkgo trees along the isle dividing lanes on Neptune Ave. Small too but not short enough that I could easily take samples to classes. The few cuttings I got made great pressings and kids love saying "Ginkgo biloba" as much as they love saying "triacanthos" especially when they connect the word with massive thorns. Evergreen trees and shrubs took a beating. Many have been removed but dead arborvitaes still stand near front doors on Mermaid avenue. When I first started my visits in spring there were dead juniper, taxus and boxwood hedges in front of many buildings. Just how stressed trees and shrubs really are may be determined at the end of winter. In fact, next year and the following years will inform us of just how badly trees were damaged by Sandy. Coney Island is in desperate need of a distressed tree evaluation, remedies to boost their health and removal of ones too far gone. I foresee limbs breaking easily during the next, wind, snow and ice storms. Right now the casualties are high. Also, some rethinking  and planning has to be done when considering what trees, shrubs and salt tolerant perennials are to be planted in Coney Island and other shoreline neighborhoods.

Today, at the beginning of fall, Coney Island is as popular as ever. I see folks flocking to the boardwalk, concerts and fast rides. Meanwhile others continue to rebuild homes and schools, clear rubble and remove dead bushes. Will the community be better prepared if a similar disaster occurs anytime soon? Will locals be weakened like the trees or can they bounce back (somewhat)? Will they have energy to fight and to fight developers who use disasters as an opportunity to claim community garden space for new or expanded construction, (what else is new?) Boardwalk Community Garden on West 22nd Street sits within feet of the ocean. Pretty amazing to be gardening under such huge expanse of sky when you can take a swim to cool off.  Not so pretty or amazing to have your garden buried in several feet of sand. This garden is one such endangered space and I fear that for all the committed and passionate gardeners, the guys with big bucks will have their  day, again. At a recent NYCCGC meeting, gardeners, after all their hard work reconstructing and planting their garden plots, were there to voice their frustration and concerns. There are plans to build a concert and event space on the garden site.

Mr Quionnes is the gardener responsible for the constantly changing garden beds and designs on the north side of Surfside Community Garden. You can't miss the huge octagon-shaped beds and spirals of marigolds, nasturtiums and sunflowers. Tirelessly working to involve the community in garden projects while keeping at bay unsavory characters who use sections of the garden as their hub, Mr Quionnes is very generous with his time and produce. The sunflowers and marigolds lining the sides of PS329 came from his garden plot. Quionnes also donated the purple basil and nasturtiums in the edible garden beds. The neighborhood is very lucky to have him.

                                                   Neptune Avenue in the Sea Gate area

The YWCA is partnering with schools in Coney Island to bring interesting and educational programs during summer and after school hours. I work with them designing and installing edible and eco/ habitat gardens while teaching kids environmental awareness, healthy eating, plant science and the joys of gardening. I chat with parents and community members who are excited about growing food and flowers. Russian, Latino, West Indian and Vietnamese neighbors, many who only speak a few words of English, stop by to offer thanks, praise and sometimes advice. Less often are requests for herbs and vegetables or soil or tools. Gardening is an activity almost everyone can relate to and being able to grow food that is otherwise unaffordable (not to mention healthier than food transported from around the country and across boarders) is a very dignified goal. Gardening can also be a major stress reliever for a community dealing with change. I hope it can be a realistic goal for more locals as time goes by. There is a large open plot on the corner of West 37 Street and Mermaid Ave, next to a retirement home and a few yards from the entrance to the boardwalk and Sea Gate. I think it is a perfect place for the community to grow large pumpkins, squash and melons (bitter and sweet) for carving, for baking pies and for the fun of growing fun food. Through gardening in Coney Island I may, like Mr Quionnes, help build community. Maybe in the process kids will develop a life-long love for trees and nature. Maybe one day soon I'll actually make it to the beach too.


Russ, a recently added member, has been keeping the paths weed-free and tidy. The black swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on bronze ...