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Destruction of Mt. Manresa’s Trees Just the Latest in the Destruction of Public Space

The destruction of 400-year old trees in Staten Island’s Mt. Manresa is just the latest attack on public spaces and imminent plans to replace it with another suburban development. Moreover, it is another symptom of the city’s failure to care for and protect public spaces.  In case you don’t know, Mt. Manresa was a Jesuit retreat center set on a beautiful old property with trees that were more than 400 years old. It is an island of nature off the Staten Island Expressway in a sea of suburban development (see here). The Jesuits had opened their property to the public and it was widely treasured by Staten Islanders.

Its sale would, undoubtedly, have been a loss to the community and to Staten Island. In fact, the Sierra Club NYC Group strongly opposed its sale. In this resolution, the NYC Group said,

It is an environmental and historical treasure unique because of its age in New York City. It contains many rare old growth trees in never disturbed woodlands and ancient and stunning geological features formed in the last ice age. For the people who live in the area, Mount Manresa is an island of peace and repose where they can breathe woodland air and connect with nature. It is an essential component for civilized life. It makes living tolerable in an already over developed area. It is also much loved by the people for its historical associations and the quality of its ancient trees.

At the same time, it’s true that Mt. Manresa was private property owned by the Jesuits.  And it’s true that their sale was legal and even for a good cause – a shift by the Jesuits to an urban ministry. So, seen in isolation, we might think this is very bad for Staten Island and for the community, but the Jesuits owned it and, without the government‘s wiliness to purchase it, had the right to sell it and a developer had the right to buy it.

However, when looked at not as an isolated event, but in the context of the conversion of public spaces one after another and especially in parks, to private use, the government can be seen as an accomplice in the destruction of New York’s open spaces. In that context, this is just another example of an ongoing ecocide.

You don’t believe it? Here are some examples that NYC Sierra Club bloggers have written about in the past.

  • The City is going ahead with allowing a private restaurateur to take over part of Union Square Park, including an area that is now a playground. See here.
  • A plan whereby developers will be permitted to destroy existing wetlands in exchange for a promise to “restore” wetlands elsewhere. See here.
  • The City permitted the expansion of the US Tennis Center, planned to okay a soccer stadium, and has just made a deal to turn over space currently used for parking to be made into a another shopping mall in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park’s footprint. See here.
  • The City has effectively permitted the privatization of Damrosch Park with the destruction of trees and other plants so it can now be used for two circuses – Fashion Week and an actual circus – significantly reducing public use as a park and the quality of the space. See here.
  • The City is in the process of turning Brooklyn Bridge Park into the backyard for several condos. See here.

Moreover, the city has turned over some parks to wealthy citizens who live around them. For example, the Central Park Conservancy both provides funds for and effectively controls Central Park. At the same time, parks in poor neighborhoods without rich benefactors find themselves wanting for funds, park staff, and full maintenance. As Len Maniaci has pointed out, we are not doing even as well as other cities:

[There is a] need for more public money, a commitment by the city to provide sufficient park funding from its annual budget. That’s not happening now. In recent years city funding amounted to no more than 0.5 percent of the city budget, down from 0.8 during the 1980s. That’s far less than other major cities, according to the Trust for Public Lands.

In this light, the failure of the City to intervene in the case of Mt. Manresa is just another example of how little the city government values open space and access to nature for its residents and citizens.

Because of this, it is time for environmental groups and organizations interested in quality of life issues to create, along with Park groups, a coalition that can bring pressure to bear on the city to give more priority to our parks and public spaces. Tupper Thomas suggests here the need to address both funding inadequacies and inequities.  And, there would be no better place to start than Mt. Manresa.

In the meantime, those concerned with Mount Manresa on Staten Island continue to fight and we owe them our support (see here and  here). Right now, you can sign a MoveOn petition for Mt. Manresa here.


Gary Nickerson is Chair for On-line Communications for the NYC Group.

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