Green Spaces

I recently adopted a tree well at the end of my block. The city council women that was in charge of the little plot became, understandably, much too busy to remain the guardian. Believe it or not, there is a tree well committee in my district, which makes sure that there is volunteer custodial care for the wells running up the avenue for 25 blocks. The title of this site suggests that I’m more of a gardener than I actually am. Horticulture is like baking (another skill that I lack). I romanticize baking and gardening as some kind of magic alchemy – but it’s not magic – it’s science.

street_treesMelissa Elstein is a yoga teacher/former lawyer and a founding member of the West 80’s Neighborhood Association. She also claims not to be a gardener, although she is now certified with Trees NY as a Citizen Pruner. We are both doing our part in the name of green spaces. The role trees and vegetation play in the environment is common knowledge – but ‘greening’ real estate and common spaces, urban or rural, provides benefits on so many levels. Beyond cleaning and cooling the air, an added tree increases property value and significantly decreases water run-off, which negatively impacts our waterways. The Broken Window theory is very much at play here. The premise being, as a window goes, so goes the neighborhood. All kinds of evidence exists supporting ‘site beautification’ and how entire neighborhoods become more habitable and are elevated commercially as well as environmentally as a result.

Melissa Elstein of the West 80's Neighborhood Association, Volunteer Laura Mathews & Me! (holding mums)

Melissa Elstein of the West 80’s Neighborhood Association, Volunteer Laura Mathews & Me! (holding mums)

The latest e-newsletter that I received from Melissa’s community organization was about the types of oil used to fuel your particular building and what you might do to influence a conversion to a cleaner option. Another organization that I was introduced to this week is Mother’s Out Front. They are tackling big environmental issues on the state level, but their foundation has been established on individual communities influencing the conversion from oil & gas to clean energy. In most cases, it’s as easy as checking a box on your electric bill.






All this is to say, big shifts usually begin at the grassroots level. Most of the time, they begin at the individual level. This is why city officials are constantly looking out for community based initiatives – a star to hitch their wagon to as it were.

A dear friend and colleague of mine, Susan Misner (actress/choreographer) shares her experience below. It really says it all.

Irma Coen was born out of noble intentions and abject frustration with a neighborhood that didn’t respect its surroundings…or so I thought.
There was a little square cut out of the sidewalk (that probably once had a tree) and was now overgrown and a repository for garbage. And when I say garbage, I mean dog poop, small vodka bottles, weeds up to your thighs, dirty diapers, you name it, it was in there. It was gross to say the least. It was depressing, and infuriating to both Jonathan and me. Everyday we walked by, we felt sad about where we lived, and a corrosive “us versus them” attitude grew in our hearts about who are neighbors were and how they could be so disrespectful.

The derision grew and grew until one day I finally said f – it, we can complain or we can try and change it. So we cleaned out all the garbage, bought a half-price tree at Home Depot, enlisted friends to help plant it, got a neighbor to make a beautiful box to go around it, and another neighbor to paint a sign that would ask people to take care of it. This was when the idea of naming our tree came to be. If we named it, maybe people would actually see it as alive and worthy of care. The sign reads: “This tree’s name is Irma Coen. Please help protect her growth.”

And so Irma Coen was born.
Then came the worry…
I worried it wouldn’t work, that she’d be littered on, pooped on, worried that she’d die. But everyday we walked by… nothing. Clean as can be. I couldn’t believe it. I remained cautiously optimistic checking and rechecking on her, pulling weeds, fully expecting a garbage dump to surround her once again. Until one day around Christmas, ornaments appeared on our little tree. Someone had decorated her. This was my first clue of the sway that Irma had over our community.
One year later…
#1) I overhear a man, (baggy jeans, sleeve tattoos, baseball hat worn sideways, thick Jersey accent) talking to his crying three year old. I did not expect this: “You wanna go talk to Irma Coen”, he says, “would that make you feel better?” She nods yes. My heart does a somersault and I kind of want to cry just a little, but instead I burst out with “I planted that tree!” to which he responds with a huge grin, “OH MY GOD! This girl loves that tree more than anything. She talks to her everyday! Sometime you gotta tell us who this Irma is.”

#2) A woman sees me picking weeds surrounding our tree, and confides that she rented the store next door partly because of Irma. She says that when she saw that sign she knew she was in the right place. It’s going to be a vegan bakery/tea shop. Here? I thought, a vegan bakery here, in this neighborhood? Oh Irma…

#3) A neighbor who I desperately tried to enlist to help with Irma a year ago to no avail, went to Home Depot bought a half-price tree and put one in front of his house in his own neglected square.

This one silly little tree has brought me so much joy, and more than joy, hope. Hope not just for the neighborhood but for myself. That I could learn to stop hardening my heart and complaining and choose beauty and do something about it. So we went to Home Depot, bought another half-priced tree and we are about to plant Irma’s sister. The sign will read: “This tree’s name is Ida Coen, sister of Irma. Please help protect her growth.”

– Susan Misner

About the Author

Here at Jenny Green Jeans, by sharing success stories and easy-to- implement tips, I hope to inspire and empower you to continue to make sustainable choices in your life and watch how far the impact goes. Contact me with any questions or suggestions you may have.

4 Enlightened Replies

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  1.' Laura says:

    I absolutely love that “Irma Coen” story! And your After shot is inspiring–did you plant a tree, too?

    • Jennifer says:

      I agree! It doesn’t get much better than the “Irma Coen” story:) No, I didn’t plant the tree in my tree well. Those trees in all the wells up the avenue were established by the city. My responsibility as a guardian is to make sure the tree is fortified with compost enriched soil and mulched. The extra plants and flowers (and surprise bulbs we planted!) are optional. By beautifying the plot further, people are less likely to dump trash or use as a litter box for their dogs. As for the “After” shot, that is a beautification project in Long Beach, CA. I love the simple, drought resistant plants and the addition of the tree.

      •' Linda Gabler says:

        The Irma story is fantastic. Thank you to Susie for sharing!! Thank you Jen, for continuing to find wonderful ways to respect and beautify our planet.

        • Jennifer says:

          I love the Irma story more than anything! Can you imagine if each of us took some responsible/loving ownership of the earth/our resources? The monumental progress and change for all living species would be astounding.

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