On a rainy spring morning, an old cherry tree began to bloom in a small park along Cherry Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Several protesters surrounded the tree to protect it from New York City workers who were about to cut it down. Police officers entered, arrested the activists and the sound of a chainsaw filled the air. The tree went down.
“There it goes, the last cherry tree on Cherry Street,” said 72-year-old poet Eileen Myles, who stood in the drizzle and witnessed the scene. “There have been cherry trees here for hundreds of years. But not anymore.”
For over a year, Myles, the author of more than 20 books of poetry, fiction and essays, including the cult novel “Chelsea Girls,” has been a staunch crusader in the struggle between a group of Lower East Side residents and the city’s powers. . It involves the controversial demolition of East River Park, the 50-acre waterfront urban green space that runs along Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, and the cherry tree was cut down to realize the city’s plans.
Myles, who uses the pronoun “she” and wore tinted glasses, slightly ripped jeans and a brown trucker cap, took a photo of the carnage in the trees with their cell phone and posted it to Instagram, where she saw more than 30,000 have followers.
“The trees have spoken to each other,” they said. ‘They talk through their roots. This tree knew this 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. Once the current park is demolished, the city plans to raise it eight to three meters by covering it with a landfill, effectively rebuilding it.
The activists don’t dispute the need for some sort of climate-driven action, but they oppose the city’s strategy to raze a park beloved by generations of Lower East Siders who have lost the shabby sports fields, rusty barbecue pits and concrete. appreciate chess tables.
Sitting next to Myles in the rain was Sarah Wellington, an artist in her thirties who created a Democracy Now! carrying bag and took video of the workers with her phone. “We think these cherry trees were between 80 and 100 years old,” she said. “This is native land that was stolen in 1643 and now it’s happening all over again.”
“I didn’t know much about Eileen Myles until recently,” she added, “but I know Eileen is a thunderbolt. You should see Eileen running.’
The previous morning, Myles was arrested after storming across the same property in an attempt to protect a tree from being cut down. They ended up spending much of the day in nearby Seventh Precinct. †You need time to be arrested and I had little to do yesterday,” they said. “But it felt good to be arrested. This is civil disobedience.”
Today, Myles enjoys the status of a valued cultural figure in downtown New York. Their career has spanned a collection of poems published on a duplicator in the 1970s and a memoir funded in recent years by a Guggenheim grant, and now they are often stopped on the streets by young and reverent writers expressing their appreciation for Myles’ work. want to express. produced in a rougher city that lives on only in myth. Protecting that disappearing New York is one of the reasons Myles has become one of the guardians of the park.
A resident of the same rent-stabilized East Village apartment since the 1970s, Myles toiled on the fringes for decades before experiencing a mainstream revival with the 2015 reissue of their 1994 autobiographical novel, “Chelsea Girls.” It won new admirers, suddenly appeared tucked away in carrier bags in bookish Brooklyn coffee shops, and a character based on the author appeared on the show “Transparent.”
But through the years of obscurity and literary fame, East River Park was the author’s reliable urban oasis. Myles scribbled poems as he smoked cigarettes and sat on the couches. They stretched their legs on the same tree for 40 years before going for a run. And during the bleakest chapters of the pandemic, they found solace in watching the river.
So when the city carried out its plan, Myles sprang into action. They have used their appearances at literary events to get the message out and wrote a passionate essay defending the park for Artforum. They organized a march that brought out New Yorkers like Chloë Sevigny and Ryan McGinley, and they helped start a campaign group, “1000 People 1000 Trees.” And while demolition is in full swing, they have continued to protest on the site, snapping photos of chainsaw-wielding workers to post on Instagram with captions like “Tree Killer.”
After the last cherry tree was thrown into a chipper, workers began mowing down a London plane and the severed limbs now fell to the ground like a waterfall. An activist let out a harrowing cry. Myles closed arms with three protesters and began to sing to the tree.
“Things that may have once been corny to me don’t feel corny anymore,” Myles said as they pedaled their bikes back to the East Village. “Since this all started for me over a year ago, it has become my heart. My then-girlfriend told me, ‘I feel like I’ve 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.
The FDR Drive became part of the East River and there was an explosion at the Con Ed factory on 14th Street that caused a power outage. Older residents of the public housing projects that surround the park, including the Baruch houses and the Jacob Riis houses, were trapped in their buildings for days due to the Flood. 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 the activists wholeheartedly supported. It proposed building a giant berm along the west side of the site, relying on East River Park as a natural sponge, without radically altering the park itself. However, in 2018, when de Blasio’s government was expected to complete the project, the city declared that plan unfeasible and continued with its current strategy. Many local residents were outraged. An opposition group, East River Park Action, took the city to court last year but has been largely unsuccessful in court.
“We are certainly familiar with Eileen Myles and have seen what they think and have written about the park,” said Ian Michaels, a spokesperson for the city’s Design and Construction Department. “The demonstrators have the right to protest. The timeline was affected by some lawsuits, but the project continues.”
Some of the phone-wielding activists have faced accusations of practicing the kind of bourgeois selfishness that comes under the term Nimbyism. “Some have said we’re just white, left-wing tree huggers,” Myles said. “How come after 44 years here I’m still just an intruder?”
On the recent spring morning, as city workers cut down Cherry Street trees, a longtime resident of a nearby housing complex, Elizabeth Ruiz, 55, walked her Shih Tzu past protesters. Ms. Ruiz, known locally as DJ Dat Gurl Curly, played house and disco sets in the park’s amphitheater for years until the band was bulldozed last December.
“In the end, I’m not that 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 knock down a tree here, you’ll knock me down too.”
After the bike ride back to the East Village, Myles sat down to breakfast in Veselka and began to reminisce about coming to New York at age 24 in the 1970s with the ambition to become a poet. — a time when the whole idea of the city pumping money into a dilapidated downtown park would have been a farce.
Growing up in a working-class Roman Catholic family near Boston, Myles found the scene they were looking for in the old East Village church that houses the Poetry Project. There they befriended such luminaries as Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, and Allen Ginsberg, and writers smoked cigarettes in the back rooms while chatting about craft. To pay the rent, Myles waited on tables at the Tin Palace, a jazz and poetry club on the Bowery, and worked as a librarian, bouncer, bicycle courier and clerk at Bleecker Bob’s, the record store in Greenwich Village. They drove around town in a pink truck while working for a radical lesbian newspaper distribution company and also delivering stacks 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 here. Andy Warhol was here. Everyone driving a taxi was writing a novel. Each waitress was a dancer. It was amazing to me that the people in New York were really who they said they were.”
In the 1980s, as the AIDS crisis ravaged downtown New York, Myles watched close friends die. Urged to embrace sobriety, Myles formed a bond with the park: Jogging past trash and needles along the East River at dusk, they shot Maria Callas as she sang “Aida” on a Walkman in honor of an opera-loving friend who had died of the disease.
“I stopped drinking and drugging, and then I started running in the park,” Myles said. “It became my ritual and has remained so for years. It became my common sense tool. The park became the best writing studio I’ve ever been to.”
As Myles sees it, the park is also a downtown time capsule, a verdant urban ruin that sustains a city that has all but decayed.
“There was time to make a lot of mistakes then,” said Myles. “There was time to lose, and everyone deserves that. And the park is wasted space. Uncontrolled local space. So the city said, ‘This can’t be true.’”
After Myles left Veselka, they got ready to meet the novelist Colm Tóibín that evening at the Strand bookshop. During the event, they talked about their struggle for the park. The next day they went to 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 planned to sneak in a reference to the park.
In fact, the park now seeps constantly into Myles’ work, especially the poetry. A recent poem, ‘120 Years and What Have You Seen’, ends like this:
I look up, you tremble
meeting, you are bigger you are wiser you are stronger
than me, and always will be. Each of us walks
round and bless