Water Main Work Wreaks Havoc on Volunteer’s Tree Pits
BY YANNIC RACK | Since he moved to his apartment on W. 30th St. four years ago, nothing has given Mark Razum the feeling of belonging to the neighborhood more than taking care of the three pedestrian island tree pits that line nearby Ninth Ave.
It was a shock then, when he left his home one morning last week and saw that the largest of his carefully tended tree pits, at the north side of W. 29th St. — where he waters flowers, pulls weeds and plants perennials all through the summer months — was gone.
“I was walking my dog and I saw workers digging a hole with a backhoe sitting on top of my garden,” said Razum, a Chelsea Garden Club member and professional landscaper who also takes care of tree pits on the south side of W. 29th St. and on W. 30th St.
“When I came back from my walk around the block, my whole garden was dug up,” he said. “Everything I had planted was in a dump truck.”
He later found out that the tree pit had become the victim of a city construction project, for which workers are installing new trunk water mains throughout the area — and that his two other tree pits would soon be paved over as well.
Fellow members of the Chelsea Garden Club, the volunteer group that takes care of the planted pedestrian islands along Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Aves. in the neighborhood, were outraged that the city had not notified them of the plans.
“It’s more than heartbreaking. How are we ever going to get volunteers if this stuff happens?” asked Missy Adams, who lives on Ninth Ave. and has taken care of a tree pit there for the past six years.
“I don’t even know what to do. It’s a waste of money if they’re just going to pave it over willy-nilly, without telling anyone,” she said.
The Garden Club has tended to around 40 islands in Chelsea since 2010, when then-State Senator Tom Duane reached a loose agreement with city agencies on the volunteers’ behalf.
A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC), the lead agency on the water main replacement, said the project was scheduled to run until early 2019, and includes work on W. 29th, W. 30th and W. 31st Sts., as well as Ninth and 10th Aves.
“We’re working very closely with the Garden Club right now in assisting them with the transplanting from the two remaining islands that we will work on,” said DDC spokesperson Shavone Williams.
“They will be rebuilt at the end of the project,” she added.
An on-site construction liaison for the project told the volunteers that the workers had to divert traffic over the tree beds between W. 29th and W. 30th Sts. in order to have space to access the water mains without closing off Ninth Ave.
Razum confirmed that the workers had offered him time to rescue the remaining plants from his other pits, and said a few people had come to adopt dozens of his plants over the weekend — including yucca, Japanese anemones, pink turtleheads, and sunflowers.
Nevertheless, he was devastated by the loss of his longtime hobby.
“I’m crestfallen. I planted thousands of bulbs there in the fall. They’re all going to be lost,” he said, adding that he estimates to have spent around $1,000 on the tree pits over the last couple of years.
This year was also when he hoped his perennials would finally come into full bloom.
“Last year, I was committed to planting nothing but native perennials. It kind of does nothing for the first year, but the second and third year it takes off,” he said. “So I was really excited this year for all my hard work to finally take form. And now it’s all gone.”
Phyllis Waisman, another Garden Club member, said the destruction was worrisome, since volunteers were hard to come by.
A new bike lane coming to Sixth Ave. this year will include more than 30 pedestrian islands that will need to be tended in the future, and the Chelsea Garden Club already has its hands full with the current crop of tree beds.
“I hope Mark is not giving up, because he’s been doing such a good job. It’s hard to find people who live all the way west on 29th and 30th Streets, which is kind of out of Chelsea,” Waisman said.
“We understand the city has problems and needs to do street work and so on. But it’s hard if we don’t have any idea about it,” she added.
Adams had stronger feelings about the whole episode.
“Why bother gardening? This is expensive and time-consuming. It’s such a hassle, if we can’t even find out who’s accountable and how to prevent this,” she said, adding, “There is no reason to plant a single stinking tree if they’re not cared for.”
For his part, Razum said he might look for another tree pit to take care of until his own are rebuilt — even if it takes three years.
“It makes me feel like I’m really part of the community; it’s been a terrific experience for me. So I look forward to continuing once I’m over my grief,” he said. “Once they put it back, I’ll have a blank canvas and I’ll go from there.”