By Paloma McGregor
We met at our usual spot yesterday, at the top of the watershed. While I appreciate the slow and steady way meeting there has helped us deepen our relationships with one another and the mapping process, I expressed a need to move more in the direction of the river.
So, we went to the farthest point we’d mapped so far, the far corner of the Quarry Fields, and decided to each take a turn as the choreographers of a walk, giving a particular task that we all follow. I went first, and asked that we each pick one of the four roads radiating from the intersection and map one block, traveling up one side and back on the other, then regroup.
I also asked that if we mapped something that is at a low level – a cement tree pit, for example – we keep our gaze low until we got to the next green landmark. Same for other levels, high or eye-level. But I quickly lost focus on that task, as I met three guys from a biker club called the Ching-A-Lings and they told me about their group, encouraged me to take a photo on their bike and let me know that the trees in front of the nearby apartment complex were planted 20 years ago. Another man, who was sitting under one of the trees, said there were similar plantings all along 180th Street two decades ago, but kids climbed them and many of them didn’t make it. That’s why the tree he was under had a hip-high metal gate around it, he said. It will be interesting to try to track that history and see what else we can find out about the history of tree-planting projects in this neighborhood.
When we met again, Damian shared that on the shady block he mapped, a woman said the trees are a big safety concern for her. There is only one streetlight on her side of the long block, and the big tree canopies – which we had remarked were beautiful – block the light and make her concerned about walking at night. It’s interesting to be learning the complex layers of people’s relationships to their green spaces.
One significant thing about yesterday’s walks are that we are beginning to develop some simple ways of deepening a physical understanding of the spaces we’re mapping. When Josue, Damian and Becky began talking about mapping wide sidewalks (which we’d decided to map as potential green spaces), Damian shared that in certain greening plans, a sidewalk 16 feet wide offered enough space for a bike path, trees and walkway. A-ha! I asked Becky to stretch her fingertips to the wall of the playground we were standing in front of, then had Damian and Josue join her, fingertip to fingertip. It was a clear and powerful way to understand the space’s potential using our bodies. How many ways could people configure themselves to measure a sidewalk’s potential to be greener? (The experience has actually changed the way I see the sidewalks I’ve walked down since.)
Another idea that kept emerging was the size of the cement tree pits and the way they can constrict the roots of a tree and stop it from reaching its full potential. We played a bit as a group with our body’s dimensions and then with boxing one another in with our bodies to get an embodied sense of what the tree experiences.
Josue pointed out an area that was likely a stream, because of its incline, flow and the presence of a huge willow tree. (I am hoping he writes about that.) Our arrival at the willow made me reflect on the course we’d charted so far and potential landmarks/stories along the way: the GI site at the top of the watershed (our starting point), the 20-year-old trees missing from 180th st, the wide sidewalk, the willow.
By the time we map our way to the river, we will have more than enough landmarks to take a walk that represents a range of physical experiences, environments and histories. On the walk back to the train on 179th St, Becky and I came across two vibrant community gardens, and an empty lot that had the potential for gardens. I would love to connect with the keepers of those gardens in order to understand their history and the community that organizes around them. I think they could be great landmarks for the walks. (Maybe we could even eat some freshly picked salads there!) I will likely do some of that work on my own in mid-June, as my apparent gift for talking to anyone is showing itself to be a useful way of learning about this community. Looking forward!