On September 13th, we visited the East Harlem study area for the first time as a group. We were introduced to the neighborhood’s streets and green spaces by staff of the non-profit organization Trees New York, and met with different members of the community. What follows is a description of our visit and first impressions of the neighborhood.
1. P.S. 96 Tree Garden
Our first stop was P.S. 96 on East 120th Street at Third Ave. Standing in front of the school we admired the work of Trees New York and their volunteers. A once empty and gloomy sidewalk and building façade now flourish with a row of street trees and a mini garden. Standing in the shade of the trees we had the opportunity to learn more about the mission of TreesNY from Cheryl Blaylock, their Director of Youth Programs, and how important public participation is for the organization. In the case of the school the students were involved in the process of seeding the trees. Cheryl provided technical information about the choice of trees and the tree planting operation. Sam Bishop, TreesNY Director of Education, explained that the trees were planted in a continuous line due to traditional landscape design and practical reasons, however he noted that having only one species makes the spread of diseases harder to control. This is an interesting technical and aesthetic issue to keep in mind as the studio moves forward.
2. Pleasant Village Community Garden
Our second stop was the Pleasant Village Community Garden, located on Pleasant Ave between East 118th and 119th Streets, just one block away from the East River. Entering from the busy streets of Harlem, we entered the peaceful and aptly named urban oasis where we met one of the gardeners and a few of the garden’s lovely chickens. He talked to us about his hope to one day collect rainwater into a large tank that was in the back of the garden and how that water could be used for irrigation. The garden is also interesting because of its several hybrid species of fruit trees (such as apriums, a mix between a plum and an apricot) planted there by TreesNY. Sam Bishop described how they soil-tested the garden and found lead contamination above the 400 parts per million recommended safety level. He explained that this amount of contamination is acceptable for fruit trees but not so for leafy greens or close to the ground plants. Given the prevalence of contaminated soils in the City it is important to keep this hazard in mind, especially with regards to small children.
3. East 120th St and Paladino Ave: Stormwater Vegetative Control
Our third stop was the neighborhood side of the East 120th St pedestrian bridge, where a plaza has been created. Two large tree beds were installed with gravel and engineered soil designed to capture stormwater runoff. Given the harsh environment of the site, and the city in general, the plants were carefully chosen to withstand dry conditions, saturated soil and windy weather. The soil mix was custom designed based on guidelines from the EPA. From an administrative point of view, it is interesting to note that such installations require a DOT street opening permit. Moreover, once the tree bed has been dug the space becomes property of the Parks Department, even though maintenance is done by TreesNY. In this particular location there were additional challenges; the metal lined curbs meant that the work had to avoid creating curb cuts and the area is sometimes used as an unofficial access point to the highway. All in all, it is a tough place to grow a tree and the work of TreesNY is impressive.
4. Tour of the East River Esplanade
We walked the esplanade from the 120th Street pedestrian bridge to the next bridge at 111th Street. This, our final stop, was possibly the most instructive for our future work as it highlighted the challenges of access to and the poor conditions of the esplanade. While on the esplanade we participated in a place making exercise that helped us to evaluate the place based on safety, orientation, sociability and access. It was really interesting to visit the esplanade together and share our first impressions on a space that we will be studying for the next 8 months. One thing that came out of our discussions was that there was a real need for a sound and visual barrier from the highway. Second, access to the esplanade needs to be rethought, including better wayfinding and public safety, especially at the bridges. Despite these and other challenges we couldn’t help but notice the sweeping views of the river and the many benches from which to enjoy it.