Neighbors in Action: Present and Future
Ward Street neighbors planting their first tree
July 17 marked the first tree-planting day of the 2021 Community Greenspace season for the Fair Haven Neighbors in Action and the Ward Street Neighbors groups. These two are different in many ways; located in opposite parts of the city, they have different cultural backgrounds and varying levels of experience with Community Greenspace. Nevertheless, they are united by the hope for a greener, healthier New Haven and are determined to make it a reality.
Fair Haven Neighbors in Action was started in 2010 by a group of Fair Haven residents living on Saltonstall Avenue, directly east of Blatchley Avenue. In their first active year they hit the ground running, planting seven street trees and an impressive 133 perennials that painted the streets with vibrant hues and breathed new life into their neighborhood. As the years passed and more people participated, the group, led by Ed Rodriguez, branched northward to Poplar, Exchange, and Wolcott Streets, broadening their impact and helping to effect social and environmental change throughout Fair Haven. To date, Fair Haven Neighbors in Action has planted nearly 90 trees and dedicated over 1,000 volunteer hours to environmental rehabilitation, stewardship, and community building.
Ward Street Neighbors is a group of residents of all ages and backgrounds in the Hill section looking to revitalize and beautify their street with tree canopy. Led by Noel and Cindy Blessing, this newly formed crew brought enthusiasm and willingness to learn and work to every single activity during the summer. Their infectious spirit spread to other neighbors and passersby who would stop to talk or offer their help—even Alder Ron Hunt came out to help us plant their first tree. Riding that momentum, the group planted five different trees throughout the rest of the season, giving the street a rejuvenated appearance and the neighbors a deep feeling of accomplishment. Ward Street on Saturday afternoons became the place to be, with some people working on tree plantings, while others chatted over a cold drink and their kids played basketball in the street. You could see how, with every new tree planted, group members not only became more open and amicable with each other but also developed a stronger sense of place-based identity and pride for the land they were now actively stewarding.
As an intern working with Community Greenspace this summer, I had the privilege of working with these two teams and witnessing amazing dynamics play out. On one particular Saturday in mid-July, I had back-to-back activities with the two groups. Both were having their first tree planting of the season which I was extremely excited to be a part of. In Fair Haven, we would be planting a replacement memorial tree on Exchange Street for Ms. Doris, whose nephew had tragically died due to gun violence. In the Hill, we would be breaking ground for the first time ever and planting a large shade tree to begin increasing the street’s canopy cover.
I got to Exchange Street around midday, and I could see Ed had already marked out the soil pit where the tree would be planted. He was waiting by the curb, looking as ready to plant a tree as anyone I’d ever seen. In his rather stylish Hawaiian shirt and an old pair of khaki pants, his face lit up upon seeing the URI truck as if it were an old friend returning home from overseas. Without my saying a word, Ed and José, Ms. Doris’s husband, unloaded the truck and began digging out the tree pit in tacit coordination. In the time it took me to fetch compost from the back of the truck, a tree-sized hole had appeared where an old stump used to be. Just 15 minutes later, with the help of three fresh volunteers, a new “Harvest Gold” Crabapple tree sat squarely in the ground in front of Ms. Doris’s house happily receiving its first five-gallon bucket of water.
It was extraordinary to see how well the group synergized together and how efficiently they worked as a team, but even more rewarding was learning the tricks of the trade from the experts themselves: how to best fold and position a plastic tarp to contain the dug-up soil, how to quickly remove the wire basket from around the tree’s root ball, and how to steer the tree into the tree pit without pulling a muscle, to name a few. I could tell I was in the presence of seasoned veterans and reveled in the expertise and knowledge they’d built up over many years of experience.
In contrast, the folks over at Ward Street were just starting out this year, which gave me the opportunity to guide them through the entire tree-planting process as it had been taught to me during my initial training. I realized, however, that I subconsciously incorporated the tips and tricks I had just learned a few hours before from Ed and José. They were the real teachers, and I was merely a messenger aiding the transfer of knowledge. Community forestry can be in this way a self-sustaining endeavor, where knowledge organically flows from one community to the next, leaving behind a legacy that extends further than a revitalized neighborhood and into the potential for future change driven by the people on the receiving end of that knowledge.
Fair Haven Neighbors in Action, after a decade of community organizing and the gradual building of a collective environmental consciousness, has left their legacy both physically, in the canopied landscape of Poplar, Exchange, and Wolcott, and spiritually, in the connections and relationships built between people in and outside of the community. Their presence will be felt in other Community Greenspace groups, such as Ward Street Neighbors, and their impact will continue to shape New Haven’s urban-forestry knowledge network for years to come.
Carlos Velazquez is a second-year YSE student studying Environmental Management and interning with URI’s Community Greenspace program since the summer of 2021. He has enjoyed working with and learning from communities throughout New Haven and is eager to see what the future holds for urban forestry in the Elm City.