Buddhist leaders urge Northampton to save cherry trees

  • Senior Zen priest Kosen Greg Snyder, left, Senior Director of Buddhist Studies at Union Theological Seminary, is assisted by Zen priest Kanshin Ruth Ozeki, a resident of Warfield Place in Northampton, in ordaining seven Japanese Kwanzan cherry trees on the north side of the street on Monday, July 12, 2021. The trees are slated for removal by the city.

  • Senior Zen priest Kosen Greg Snyder, left, senior director of Buddhist studies at Union Theological Seminary, is assisted by Zen priest Kanshin Ruth Ozeki, a resident of Warfield Place in Northampton, in ordaining seven Japanese Kwanzan cherry trees on the north side of the street on Monday. The trees are slated for removal by the city. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • About 65 people attended a Zen ordination ceremony for seven Japanese Kwanzan cherry trees on Warfield Place in Northampton on Monday, July 12, 2021. The trees are slated for removal by the city.

  • Left, Liz Gaudet, Oliver Kellhammer, Lois Ahrens and Ruth Ozeki, all residents on Warfield Place, upset by the cities decision to take down the Cherry Trees in order to widen the road and fix pot holes.

  • A sign on one residents front porch protesting the cities decision to take down the Cherry Trees on Warfield Place in Northampton.

  • Blooming Cherry Trees on Warfield Place. The City of Northampton is planning to take the trees down in order to widen and fix pot holes in the road.

  • Cherry trees bloom on Warfield Place in Northampton in late April. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/15/2021 8:57:33 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A coalition of neighbors on Warfield Place delivered a letter signed by more than 120 prominent Buddhists to the staff of Mayor David Narkewicz on Thursday, urging the mayor to cancel a plan to ax seven cherry trees as part of a road reconstruction project.

The group, Save the Cherry Trees, also delivered a petition signed by more than 2,100 people who want the city to reconsider the project and open the decision-making process to residents.

Narkewicz was out of the office on Thursday and unavailable for comment by press time.

“In our Zen Buddhist tradition, we understand trees, mountains, rivers, and the whole of sentient life, to be sacred teachers of spiritual wisdom,” the letter reads. “Because of a controversial plan to repave the street, these trees are to be killed prematurely. We find this painful and strange.”

Department of Public Works Director Donna LaScaleia said the letter “does not affect the plan for Warfield Place.”

Dozens of Warfield Place residents — as many as 50 attended one meeting with the mayor over the summer — have launched a multifront push to save a total of 10 trees, including the seven Kwanzan Japanese cherries planted 30 years ago.

The group asserts that the reconstruction plan will remove 80% of the street’s tree canopy and most of the shade, and that it will take decades to replenish.

Oliver Kellhammer, of Warfield Place, an assistant professor of sustainable systems at The New School in New York, wrote in a July 6 column in the Gazette that, during the recent heat waves, the temperature of unshaded asphalt hit at least 139° F, hot enough to cause second-degree burns. Under the cherry trees, it was up to 54° F cooler.

Thursday’s letter, received by Narkewicz’s chief of staff Alan Wolf on the steps on City Hall, was signed by “some of the most prominent Buddhist leaders in North America,” according to Save the Cherry Trees. Signatories include Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Northampton resident and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at UMass Medical School, and Buddhist spiritual leaders in California, New Mexico and New York.

Japanese, Shinto and Buddhist cultures revere cherry trees as symbols of hope, but also of the brevity of human life and the importance of living in the moment. Cherry blossoms are the national flower of Japan.

“We know the residents of Warfield Place have offered to work with your office to create a plan that could provide full accessibility for street and walkway surfaces while protecting these precious, venerable trees,” the letter reads. “The undersigned list of Buddhist priests, monks, and leaders support this and encourage the city government to respond warmly to this generous request for collaboration, working to find a harmonious solution that will not unnecessarily take life.”

On Monday, six Buddhist monks and priests held a traditional ordination ceremony, at which all 10 trees on the street were ordained as Zen priests themselves.

“These trees are members of our clergy, and they are not ready to die,” said Ruth Ozeki, a Zen Buddhist priest and Warfield Place resident who participated in the ordination ceremony, after the letter was delivered to City Hall. “It certainly is an issue of religious respect. … We have about three potholes. I’d happily fill them myself.”

Warfield Place residents do not believe their street needs repaving right now, since no resident asked for it and the city acknowledges that drivers do not complain about cracks or potholes on the seldom-used side street that connects Prospect Street to Finn Street.

LaScaleia, the public works director, has said Warfield Place is among the city’s “long-neglected” side streets that need to be rebuilt. The work will repave the road, remove the sidewalk on one side and widen it on the other, add concrete wheelchair ramps to the wider sidewalk, fix drainage issues and provide better bicycle access.

“The trees are public shade trees … under the care and custody of no other entity than the city of Northampton,” said LaScaleia, citing state law. “We are confident that this street reconstruction project as designed is in full alignment with our city policies and planning goals.”

Ozeki and her neighbors reject the idea that the planned work represents an improvement.

“We have multiple issues — environmental, accessibility, sustainability, and the participatory process,” said Ozeki. “Most of the communication that we’ve received has been in the form of notices taped to our doors.”

She said the group is seeking an “independent evaluation” of the entire project and the process for its approval.

“Warfield was a cheap street to repave (but) it’s an urban plan for a very small, narrow, historic street,” said Ozeki. “They’re digging in their heels because they don’t want the civic participation they’re committed to.”

LaScaleia said the city is acting no differently than it would for any other project.

“We always communicate our plans with residents, and Warfield Place is no exception,” she said.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.
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