A Tree Grows In “A Concrete World”

Thomas MacMIllan PhotoNew life took root in a bleak concrete canyon off of State Street, where a young cherry tree is a pioneer in the conversion of a gray corridor into a leafy pedestrian walkway.

For years neighbors have complained that the Humphrey Street highway underpass off of State Street is a dark and unappealing stretch of asphalt and cement, one that artificially divides the Jocelyn Square and Upper State Street neighborhoods.

Ben Berkowitz, head of the Upper State Street Association, teamed up with the Urban Resources Initiative (URI) to petition the state Department of Transportation to allow for trees to be planted in and around the underpass. Chris Ozyck of URI drew up an eight-tree planting plan, which Berkowitz pitched to DOT. With cooperation from the city, which has agreed to be the permit holder for the project, the DOT approved the plan.

Last week, neighborhood volunteers planted a cherry at the east end of the underpass. This Tuesday they placed another cherry in the middle of the overpass in a gap between overpassing highway lanes. Further trees will be planted on upcoming Tuesday afternoons.

Emma Richards, a community manager at SeeClickFix (a company Ben Berkowitz founded), showed up to help out on Tuesday. After donning blue work gloves and a neon green vest, she said she hopes the trees will help soften the boundary between the two neighborhoods and make the walkway more inviting.

“It’s such a dividing line,” said Richards, who lives on Whitney Avenue.

“Who wants to walk through here right now?” said David Streever, who also donned a green vest to help out. He said new trees will make a statement about the area. Improved lighting and maybe some murals on the blank gray walls would be even better, he said.

“I think it’s amazing,” volunteer Danyel Aversenti said of the effort to bring trees to the underpass. “It’s giving life back to what’s a concrete world.”

Richards and Streever (pictured) helped out by first moving chunks of concrete that had been removed from the sidewalk.

The city Department of Public Works has cut through the sidewalk in areas where the trees are to be planted, leaving squares of concrete for volunteers to remove.

Streever and Richards then used picks to break up the packed gravel underneath the sidewalk ...

... which URI’s Tim Eakins (at left in photo) shoveled into a wheelbarrow that was emptied into a trailer.

Meanwhile, more volunteers filtered in. Adenike Adeyeye, supervising the operation for URI, set them to work shoveling compost off of another tree site.

East Rockers Aversenti (left) and Jessica Holmes (right), a Ward 9 aldermanic candidate, worked pry-bars to lever out sections of the sidewalk.

Meanwhile, Richards and Adeyeye wrangled the heavy young cherry tree off a nearby truck.

They wheeled it towards the site as the sinking sun filtered down through the highway.

Volunteers labored on as the sun set.

The next day, a morning thunderstorm watered a newly planted cherry tree, which stood as a spot of green in the middle of a barren stretch of concrete.

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posted by: Resident on June 23, 2011  9:12am

I’m glad to see our tax dollars going to good use. Good job, Parks,Recreation,and Trees.

posted by: streever on June 23, 2011  9:28am

The work was actually done by volunteers—although we do have some support from the city, which we are very grateful for!

Emma Richards is doing amazing things here—I’m really glad that SeeClickFix is so invested in community and community involvement.

I think any company located in New Haven should look to Ben Berkowitz & SCF as a model for participation in their community. New Haven provides a lot to a company—a great place to be located, high-caliber potential employees within walking distance of your office, and a great academic culture.

posted by: Truth on June 23, 2011  9:31am

How about taking care of the trees they have now. 10 years later and still my tree is not trimmed. My street is so dark at night I,m afraid to go outside.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on June 23, 2011  10:14am

Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” a classic on urban design, describes locations such as that highway underpass as “border vacuums.”  Border vacuums divide up neighborhoods by creating zones of emptiness and unsafety (real or perceived) that discourage the flow of people.  The carving up of this city (and many others) for the sake of car traffic created vast numbers of border vacuums that did enormous damage to the social fabric of residents.

posted by: DEZ on June 23, 2011  10:19am

I was so happy to see the tell tale signs of this endeavor when the concrete was cordoned off and being cut.  Congratulations!  Our URI group has often had to do the same, and thus far, the trees are doing well.  Good job!

posted by: Ben Berkowitz on June 23, 2011  10:49am

So excited that this is finally happening. Thanks so much to Emma and everyone who came out.

We’ll be out next Tuesday at 6:00 PM again for anyone who wants to come help out.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on June 23, 2011  11:19am

While street trees certainly help to buffer the sidewalk from the street and create a defined pedestrian environment, on their own they will not have much of an initial impact on this underpasses use or feeling of safety. However, with some more development on both sides of the underpass along State Street with retail, office and residential uses, there could be demand for street vendors in the underpass to sell a variety of items. That would definitely address most of the issues created by the divide.
Street trees are a great step towards making this corridor accessible and useful again, great job guys.

posted by: No signs on June 23, 2011  11:26am

If someone on this project still has contacts/connections with the City, please can they pass along the message to not staple signs into the saplings for at least three years.

posted by: streever on June 23, 2011  12:20pm

@No Signs:
I have tried. Along with another citizen who was told to “go $#!*” himself by John Prokop.

Howard Weisselberg (nice but totally ineffective—and I’m sure he’ll give me a call when he reads this like before!) called me and asked me to do some research on how other cities handle signs on trees. (He wanted to implement a complicated harness system)

I called a dozen municipalities and was met with disbelief at EACH ONE that we staple signs to trees. I was told repeatedly that the harness idea was “terrible” and not something which would fly in their cities.

They proposed some great ideas which I took back to the city:

1. Having a schedule and sticking to it!
2. If you have to go outside the schedule, put sawhorses at the end of the street (in the no parking spot) with a sign that warns residents of the parking ban
3. Use your reverse 311
4. Portland Oregon sends LETTERS when they go off the schedule

There were other ideas but I do not recall them all.

What I do recall is the incompetence and inability of our city administration to EASILY prevent the death of the trees which they have purchased, which citizens have planted, using our own time & energy.

posted by: swatty on June 23, 2011  2:53pm

A concrete jungle is born. that tree looks a little high and lonesome.

posted by: first observer on June 23, 2011  3:56pm

Another terrific photo-article by Mr. MacMillan.

I have only one quibble: surely the volunteer workers were not “shoveling compost off of another tree site”—surely they were shoveling compost (or preparing to) *into* a hole for a tree site made by cutting the concrete and removing the gravel underneath out of the hole.

posted by: DEZ on June 23, 2011  4:03pm

@ Streever, (RE: Street sweeping, no-parking signs)too funny, and sadly true.  I’m all for the “Stick to the posted schedule”.  You know, the one that is listed on the permanent, metal sign sticking out of the tree lawn.  What’s up with the need to pay people to staple additional signs to the trees, or, as I’ve seen, duct tape them to the before mentioned metal signs sticking out of the tree lawn which clearly state which days of the week and what time of year street sweeping will occur.  Ugh…redundancy anyone?  Waste of time and resources?  I really want to say more, but will refrain from offensive language that describes those which may lack certain regions of the prefrontal cortex.  Again, good work!

posted by: Livesinfairhaven on June 23, 2011  7:20pm

Cool “atrium” effect with the tree in between the overpasses.  Do the other side of the street too!

Jonathan Hopkins:

It would be nice to get some of that development on the East St side of the underpass.  The difference in the two neighborhoods is stark. Hope the trees help.

posted by: streever on June 23, 2011  10:54pm

@first observer
Actually, the compost was dumped on another tree site (because it was dumped directly next to the hole for the tree we were planting, which is where we’ll plant the next tree—once we take the concrete out of there at least)

posted by: Walt on June 25, 2011  6:58am

Nice job,  Congratulations!

Ridiculous to nail signs to such young trees,

Keep up the fight.

posted by: GOOD LUCK! on June 27, 2011  9:37am

Whats the over/under for life span of these trees? I give them 8 months at most.  Go look at all the trees planted at Science Park in the same manner.  They do not have enough soil to support the tree.  Top branches are void of leaves and the leaves on the lower branches are all dried and dying even with all the rain we’ve recently received.  If planting is not properly done, it is a complete waste of money!

posted by: Ben Berkowitz on June 27, 2011  11:38am

Some stats to assist with the over/under:

We have planted 18 Trees along Upper State in the last three years.
All have survived save one which was hit in a car accident. It was quickly replaced by the SOHU group and has survived.

I’ll put money on the tree’s survival no matter what the split.

posted by: Greg on June 27, 2011  12:14pm

I’m super happy to hear that this is happening.  I’m out of town for a few months, but am going to enjoy the hell out of those trees when I get back.


posted by: streever on June 27, 2011  4:05pm

@Good Luck
As Berkowitz says, all the trees we have planted have outlasted your estimate. Can’t wait to see these ones defy your expectations as well!

Come out and help us if you think we’re not caring for them well—we’d be happy for an extra set of hands. Maybe you can give us some good advice?

posted by: Ben Berkowitz on June 28, 2011  3:05pm

A reminder again that if you want to help plant two Cherry Trees tonight at this location we will be meeting at Humphrey and State at 6PM

posted by: solsonic on July 5, 2011  11:08am

How lovely! Yet the headline got me to believe some sort of magic tree had crashed it’s way out of the ground at an unusuall speed in the world of trees.

posted by: Claudia Herrera on July 6, 2011  9:58pm

Good job Emma!!
One baby step at the time. love cherry trees!