One rainy spring morning, an old cherry tree was beginning to bloom in a small park along Cherry Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Several protesters surrounded the tree to protect it from New York workers who were about to cut it down. Police officers intervened, arrested the activists and the sound of a chainsaw filled the air. The tree fell.
“There it is, the last cherry tree on Cherry Street,” said 72-year-old poet Eileen Myles, who stood in the drizzle to witness the scene. “There have been cherry trees here for hundreds of years. But not anymore.”
For more than a year, Myles, the author of more than 20 books of poetry, fiction and essays, including the cult novel “Chelsea Girls”, has been a fiery crusader in the struggle between a group of locals of the Lower East Side and the city powers. At issue is the controversial demolition of East River Park, the 50-acre urban green space on the waterfront that runs along Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, and the cherry tree was cut down to fit city plans .
Myles, who uses the pronoun “they” and wore tinted glasses, slightly ripped jeans and a brown trucker cap, took a photo of the tree carnage with his mobile phone and posted it to Instagram, where he has more than 30,000 subscribers.
“The trees talked to each other,” they said. “They spoke through their roots. This tree knew it was coming.
The city began demolishing East River Park last year as part of the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, a plan that aims to improve the area’s flood protection capabilities. After the current park is demolished, the city plans to raise it eight to 10 feet by covering it with landfill, building it anew.
Activists don’t dispute the need for some kind of climate action, but they do oppose the city’s strategy to raze a park beloved of generations of Lower East Siders who enjoy its scruffy sports fields, barbecue grills rusted and its concrete chess tables.
Snuggled next to Myles in the rain was Sarah Wellington, an artist in her thirties who wore a Democracy Now! tote bag and took a video of the workers with his phone. “We think these cherry trees were between 80 and 100 years old,” she said. “This is Indigenous land that was stolen in 1643 and now it’s happening again.”
“I didn’t know much about Eileen Myles until recently,” she added, “but I do know that Eileen is lightning. You should see Eileen running.
The morning before, Myles was arrested after they rushed to the same site in an attempt to save a tree from being felled. They ended up spending much of the day at the nearby Seventh Precinct. “You need time to get arrested and I didn’t have much to do yesterday,” they said. “But it feels good to be arrested. It’s civil disobedience. »
These days, Myles enjoys status as an esteemed cultural figure in downtown New York. Their careers have included a collection of poetry published on a mimeo machine in the 1970s and a Guggenheim-funded memoir in recent years, and they are now often stopped in the street by deferential young writers wishing to express their appreciation for the work Myles produces in a grittier town that lives only in myth. Protecting this endangered New York is part of the reason Myles became one of the park’s rangers.
Resident of the same East Village rent-stabilized apartment since the 1970s, Myles worked on the fringes for decades before experiencing a mainstream revival with the 2015 re-release of their 1994 autobiographical novel, “Chelsea Girls.” He gained new admirers, suddenly appearing hidden in tote bags in Brooklyn book cafes, and a character based on the author appeared on the show “Transparent.”
But throughout the years of obscurity and literary fame, East River Park was the writer’s reliable urban oasis. Myles scribbled poems while smoking cigarettes and sitting on his benches. They stretched their legs on the same tree for 40 years before racing. And during the darker chapters of the pandemic, they found comfort in gazing at the river.
So when the city enacted its plan, Myles sprang into action. They used their appearances at literary events to spread the message, and they wrote an impassioned essay defending the park for Artforum. They organized a march that brought out New Yorkers like Chloë Sevigny and Ryan McGinley, and they helped found an activist group, “1000 people 1000 trees”. And although demolition is well underway, they protested emphatically at the site, taking photos of workers wielding chainsaws to post on Instagram with captions like “Tree killer”.
After the last of the cherry trees were thrown into a chipper, workers began mowing down a London plane, and its hacked limbs were now cascading to the ground. One activist let out a heartbreaking cry. Myles locked the arms of three protesters and began singing at the tree.
“Things that might have been cheesy to me just don’t seem cheesy to me anymore,” Myles said as they began to ride their bikes back to East Village. “Since it all started for me over a year ago, it’s become my heart. My girlfriend at the time said to me, ‘I feel like I lost you in the park.”
The demolition of East River Park, which Robert Moses built in the 1930s, dates back to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when Lower Manhattan was devastated by flooding.
FDR Drive became part of the East River, and there was an explosion at the Con Ed factory on 14th Street that created a blackout. Older residents of public housing projects that surround the park, including Baruch Houses and Jacob Riis Houses, were trapped in their buildings for days due to the deluge. Implementing flood protection in Lower Manhattan became a priority, and the city’s attention turned to East River Park.
Initially, there was a plan that activists wholeheartedly supported. He proposed that a giant berm be built along the western side of the site, leaning on East River Park like a natural sponge, without the need to drastically alter the park itself. In 2018, however, when the de Blasio administration was expected to finalize the project, the city declared this plan unworkable and continued with its current strategy. Many members of the community were outraged. An opposition group, East River Park Action, sued the city last year, but was largely unsuccessful in court.
“We certainly know Eileen Myles and have seen what they think and have written about the park,” said Ian Michaels, spokesman for the city’s design and construction department. “Protesters have the right to demonstrate. The schedule has been affected by some lawsuits, but the project is continuing.
Some of the phone-wielding activists have faced accusations that they practice the brand of civic selfishness that has come to be known as Nimby-ism. “Some have said we’re just white left-handed greenies,” Myles said. “How come after 44 years here, I’m still just an intruder?”
On a recent spring morning, as city workers cut down trees on Cherry Street, Elizabeth Ruiz, 55, a longtime resident of a nearby residential complex, walked her Shih Tzu past protesters. Known in the neighborhood as DJ Dat Gurl Curly, Ms Ruiz played house and disco sets in the park amphitheater for years until the band’s shell was bulldozed last December.
“At the end of the day, I’m not so mad at gentrification and change,” she said. “But I don’t understand why they have to destroy the trees and everything else in the park. If you chop down a tree here, then you chop me down too.
After cycling back to the East Village, Myles sat down to lunch in Veselka and began to reminisce about arriving in New York at age 24 in the 1970s with aspirations of becoming a poet – a time when The very notion of the city pumping money into a run-down downtown park would have been far-fetched.
Myles, who grew up in a working-class Roman Catholic family near Boston, found the scene they were looking for in the former East Village church that houses the Poetry Project. There they befriended greats like Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan and Allen Ginsberg, and writers smoked cigarettes in the back rooms as they talked craft. To pay the rent, Myles served tables at the Tin Palace, a jazz and poetry club on the Bowery, and worked as a librarian, bouncer, bike messenger and clerk at Bleecker Bob’s, the Greenwich Village record store. Driving around town in a pink truck while working for a radical lesbian newspaper distribution company, they also delivered piles of gay male pornography magazines and music publications.
“When I finally got here, I was like, ‘Wait, you mean this town is real?'” Myles said. “Bob Dylan was there. Andy Warhol was there. Everyone who drove a cab was writing a novel. Every waitress was a dancer. It was amazing to me that people in New York were actually who they claimed to be.
In the 1980s, as the AIDS crisis ravaged downtown New York, Myles watched close friends die. Driven to embrace sobriety, Myles bonded with the park: Running past litter and needles along the East River at dusk, they lambasted Maria Callas singing “Aida” on a walkman to honor a loving friend opera who died of illness.
“I quit drinking and doing drugs, and that’s when I started running in the park,” Myles said. “It became my ritual and it remained so for years. It became my mental health tool. The park has become the best writing studio I’ve ever been to.
According to Myles, the park is also a downtown time capsule, a green urban ruin that preserves a city that has all but perished.
“It was time to make a lot of mistakes back then,” Myles said. “There was time to waste, and that’s what everyone deserves. And the park is a wasted space. Uncontrolled vernacular space. So the city said, ‘That’s not possible.’
After Myles left Veselka, they prepared to speak at the Strand bookstore that evening with novelist Colm Tóibín. During the event, they discussed their fight for the park. The next day they were leaving for Marfa, Texas, where they had bought a house a few years ago. They would join their rescue pit bull, Honey, and complete an assignment for The New Yorker; in the story, they intended to sneak in a reference to the park.
In fact, the park now constantly seeps into Myles’ work, especially into poetry. A recent poem, “120 years and what have you seen”, ends thus:
I look up, you’re shaking
reunion you are taller you are wiser you are stronger
than me, and always will be. Each of us walking
around and blessing
will always be
to be TREE