273 Days Remain

On this 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I’m writing to you from what I consider to be an extraordinary slice of paradise… the cheerful park right next to our apartment complex that used to be called “the ugliest park in Manhattan.”

Less than one year ago, Luther Gulick Park was a grim, litter-filled eyesore.

Though it had enjoyed a heyday in the 1930s, years of economic decline left the park in a constant state of disrepair.  Benches and game tables were taken away to discourage certain untoward behaviors.  Empty pits marked the space where graceful trees had once stood, long since destroyed by an infestation of the Asian Longhorn Beetle.

I used to walk by the park every day on my way to bringing the kids to school and mutter “Cesspit!” under my breath.  Here’s a picture of the park last year:

While it may not be ready for Homes and Gardens quite yet, here’s what Luther Gulick Park looks like today:

So what happened?

For starters, a few intrepid souls in the neighborhood — Dave being the chief instigator, you won’t be surprised to learn if you’ve ever met my Energizer Bunny of a husband — got sick of people like me who kept right on complaining but never did anything about it.

They got lots of other people together to talk about it.  Parents who wanted their kids to dig in the dirt.  Folks who knew something about which plants might grow there.  A web designer to build a site for the park.  Some parks officials.  A group of students studying urban design.

Before long, they had a movement.  Without any particular ties to the powers that be, they raised $460,000 from the city and state — a good chunk of the way towards building a true green oasis.  A concrete ping pong table may be arriving soon.  New benches, shade trees, refurbished handball and basketball courts.  All to be decided by the community.

In the meantime, tulips and daffodils, forsythia, magnolia and several evergreens bought at a nearby Home Depot have filled out the empty tree pits.  Elderly Chinese women practice tai chi here every morning.  Right now, a little boy is learning to ride his bike.

And what does this have to do with my year to live project?

Well, the experience has forced me to stop and think about bellyaching.  I prefer to think of myself as a doer, a person who loves to get involved in positive change.  (Hey – I even teach a course with “social change” in the title!)  But what are the areas where I do a lot of complaining?  Why do I do it?    How can I apply my own set of skills and interests to make a difference?  What’s the resistance?  It seems worthwhile to take a look.

On another level, I was thinking recently about how planting trees is such a meaningful way to remember someone who has passed away.  We planted a graceful Japanese maple in my parents’ yard when my grandfather died.  Over 30 years later it still makes me think of him.

But what if I also thought about doing some planting to honor this life, while I’m still here?

Voila!  Here’s the crab apple tree that my son Drew (cheeky little devil!) and I planted in our park.  Happy Earth Day!

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