It happened down in South Ozone Park and up in Middle Village, at two public parks whose grounds were graced with recently planted trees. Cherry, oak and even some older evergreens – some of which were part of a Queens Courier 9/11 tribute – were suddenly sawed or snapped in two, limbs left dangling, and in some cases uprooted entirely, left to wither.
Homeowners have been known to occasionally prune or chop down a neighboring tree from time to time, even if such vegetation is technically on public property. However, the “illogical” acts of blatant vandalism that occurred during a recent five-day span in Juniper Valley Park and Lefferts Playground are unprecedented, said Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski.
“I’d have to say fortunately in the borough of Queens it’s not happening all over. It’s not an epidemic,” Lewandowski said of the incidents of tree vandalism, or “arborcide,” which, punishable with up to $15,000 in fines and up to one year in prison, have not been connected.
Still, Lewandowski admitted, “It’s something we’re seeing that we had not seen before.”
Robert Holden, President of the Juniper Park Civic Association, said such devastation in his park evoked outrage and shock among community members.
“When you came upon the scene it was just horrific,” recalled Holden, who said an earlier instance of vandalism in June – some broken tree limbs, a few snapped trunks – was relatively minor compared to what park goers discovered on September 13.
Young trees, seven to 10 feet tall and worth, Holden said, $1,000 apiece – trees that would have exploded with colorful flowers next spring – had been leveled with an electric saw, dragged up by their roots, and strewn around the park. Ten cherry and two oak trees were destroyed and scores of others, including 12-foot-high evergreens, were split in two.
The only suspects, noted Holden, are a group of older teenagers whom an area jogger saw drinking in the park on the June night prior to the initial vandalism. The jogger called the police, who chased the teens away, and Holden speculates that the kids may have returned later that night in retaliation.
But the recent arborcide, Holden explained, was different.
“It goes without saying that some youth get a thrill with vandalizing,” he said. “But to go in there with an electric saw, this was an obviously planned act, and it was quite disturbing to see because it was just so mindless. What purpose was there other than to just destroy?”
While the Juniper Park incident involved trees planted as part of the MillionTreesNYC initiative – a public effort to plant and care for one million citywide trees over the next decade – the nature of the Lefferts Playground plantings made the arborcide in southeastern Queens that much harder to stomach.
The trees, seven ornamentals that would have blossomed come spring, were part of a living memorial to 9/11 victims that was damaged on September 18. The Queens Courier, in partnership with the city Parks Department, provided the funding.
Lewandowski said her agency has yet to receive any phone calls with tips. She added that, while Parks employees and police can keep a look out, it is up to the public “to be the eyes and the ears” and report anything out of the norm.
Holden is considering installing video cameras in Juniper Park and his association has offered a $500 reward, paired with $1,000 each from Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley and former Councilmember Tom Ognibene, for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone behind the damage. Additionally, a Long Island nursery has offered to donate trees.
But the damage has been done. Much as the spring plantings “really transformed the park,” according to Holden, the senseless vandalism has equally altered its landscape and mobilized its devoted patrons.
“People of all ages were upset,” Holden said. “Everyone was condemning this as a senseless act and we’re determined to get this guy. It’s just an attack on society.”