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Relief Through ReLeaf 

Local nonprofit Parkway Partners aims to replant New Orleans' major corridors as well as its backyards and side streets.

It was a strange moment of awareness for Jean Fahr. One afternoon not so long ago, she was walking down St. Charles Avenue admiring the area's stately trees when she encountered a blind man.

'These trees are in pretty good shape," she said to the man.

The blind man turned to her and replied, 'Lady, can I give you my opinion?"

She said, 'Sure."

'There's never been so much sunlight on the Avenue," he said.

Seeing the Avenue from the blind man's point of view was an epiphany, says Fahr, executive director of New Orleans' Parkway Partners, a nonprofit community group that partners with the city's Department of Parks and Parkways. For the past two years, she has led the group's largest initiative, ReLeaf New Orleans, which aims to replant the city's trees. More than 75 percent of them either were lost during Hurricane Katrina or died later because of flooding.

Fahr began working for Parkway Partners just days before the storm and since then has labored to help neighborhoods throughout the city replace lost or dying trees as quickly as possible.

'The storm redefined everything we did, which is why trees became so important," she says. 'Our big program right now is to put trees in the ground everywhere. We do it through the citizens, that's what Parkway Partners is about " working for the citizens with the citizens to connect them to the city and to help the city get the job done, too."

ReLeaf New Orleans is a spin-off of one of Parkway Partners' early programs, which had been planting trees in poor neighborhoods before the storm. Now the organization puts trees wherever they're needed " roughly 4,000 of them citywide so far. In the coming months, Parkway Partners will take on the St. Claude Avenue and Claiborne Avenue corridors, recruiting volunteers and neighborhood participants to help re-leaf some of the city's biggest neutral grounds.

ReLeaf's strategy is 'corridors first," Fahr says. In an early group planning session, members of the Preservation Resource Center told the group that New Orleans has the greatest number of tree-lined corridors of any city in the world. The reason, Fahr says, is because what used to be canals and elaborate drainage systems for the city later became the big green spaces we know as neutral grounds. These spaces make up a large part of the urban canopy that Parkway Partners hopes to preserve.

The group recently planted several trees along Elysian Fields and Broad Street as well as on St. Charles Avenue from Jackson Avenue to Lee Circle. The effort included volunteers, trained participants and neighborhood association members. In conjunction with corridor planting, Parkway Partners also plants trees in the surrounding neighborhoods as a stimulus to recovery, says Fahr. 'When we did Elysian Fields, there was a lot of honking of horns, people were excited. I mean, people would be going on their way to work dressed in full suits, and they'd jump out of their cars and help with the planting. It was so neat. It was probably the most stimulating moment ever."

This year's early Mardi Gras opened a rare window of opportunity for Parkway Partners to work along St. Charles Avenue after Carnival but before the tree-planting season ends. Tree planting season typically lasts from October to March, while there's still moisture in the ground. Once warmer weather arrives, it draws moisture out of the ground, decreasing new plants' chances for survival. Likewise, Mardi Gras parades and revelers can be tough on newly planted trees. This year, new trees will have an entire year to settle before next year's Carnival festivities.

Since tree-planting season has come to a close, St. Claude and Claiborne avenues will be planted in the fall, depending on how resources and money come in, Fahr says. It takes a lot of work to coordinate the planting of so many trees along neutral grounds, and a lot of money to support the program. 'I have to get a bunch that are going in to get the pricing or get [landscapers] to even want to do the project," she says. Parkway Partners hires professional landscapers to plant neutral grounds, and Fahr goes to neighborhood associations in those areas to promote the other half of the program, fondly dubbed '10 for the Hood" by one Holy Cross-area resident. If neighborhood residents commit to planting 10 or more street trees (between houses and curbs), Parkway Partners will provide the trees for free and facilitate the application and approval process by the city " in addition to what it puts along the nearby major corridors.

Though tree-planting season is over until October, March is still a critical month for trees: it's the ideal time for fertilizing after a long wet winter, and the right time for spraying to protect against buck moth caterpillars, which are bad for trees because they eat new growth, Fahr says. They are especially damaging for those that were badly stressed during Katrina and are still on the mend. Local foresters say that after a flood like Katrina, it takes up to 10 years for a live oak either to fully recover or die.

Fertilizing trees also can protect them from environmental damage and urban stress. Parkway further encourages residents to treat termite-infested trees, noting that despite a popular misconception, many times infected trees can be saved rather than cut down. Residents can sign up through Parkway Partners and pay $75 per tree for caterpillar spraying, $65 for fertilizing, and $130 for termite treatment.

Founded in 1982 by Flo Schornstein, then-director of the Department of Parks and Parkways for the city of New Orleans, Parkway Partners is a nonprofit organization that promotes partnership between the community and the city of New Orleans with the mission of beautifying and maintaining the city's neutral grounds, playgrounds and parks. Parkway Partners coordinates a variety of programs in addition to ReLeaf, with the goal of emphasizing environmental responsibility and education as well as community and economic development.

Schornstein, who kept her appointed position through four mayoral elections, saw an immediate need for structuring within the Department of Parks and Parkways when she took over as director at then-Mayor Dutch Morial's behest more than 25 years ago. Schornstein realized she had to get creative. She organized the department's work force into teams of three and gave them assigned routes that would remain theirs, requiring each team to complete a job on each block before moving to the next. But she also realized that in order to maintain the city's parkways, she would need to recruit citizen volunteers to aid the city's inadequate number of staff members.

'I learned early on that people really want to participate in the day-to-day functioning of this city," she says. 'They just didn't know how. No one had ever asked them. They were happy to do it."

Out of this initiative, Schornstein founded the adopt-a-neutral ground program, getting volunteers to commit to maintaining the neutral ground on the block in front of their homes or businesses for a year. This initiative eventually led to the founding of Parkway Partners, an independent, nonprofit organization. 'One of the most exciting things I have ever done is to create this public-private partnership," she says. 'It has been one of the most satisfying successes of my life."

Parkway Partners has never been in the city budget and has never wanted to be, Schornstein says. 'We raise all our own money here, always have. We get grants and memberships and have fundraisers, and we have a pretty hefty budget at this point because we have a large program."

Large indeed, Parkway Partners manages several other initiatives in addition to ReLeaf. One of its programs, Tree Troopers, trains neighborhood residents to be tree representatives in their area, knowledgeable of the process of applying for and planting street trees and trees along major corridors. The last tree trooper training included tree ambassadors from more than 32 neighborhoods.

Knowing that most trees were lost on private property, Parkway Partners also offers the Second Saturday Program, which helps citizens re-green their backyards. On the second Saturday of every month from 9 a.m. to noon, the organization opens its doors for plant and tree sales as well as expert lectures on gardening and other seasonal topics. Among them: 'New Orleans Gardening for Newcomers," which will be held in April to teach residents about our local growing seasons; 'The Dog Days of Summer" in August, a lecture on pet-friendly plants held in conjunction with the Louisiana SPCA; and 'Old Historic New Orleans Plants" in October.

Additionally, Parkway Partners coordinates both community and schoolyard garden programs.

'We're doing just about everything we set out to do in terms of public space, green space," Schornstein says. 'Our only limitation is the number of dollars we have to do that."

For more information about tree planting, educational programs or upcoming events, visit Parkway Partners' Web site at www.parkwaypartnersnola.org or call 620-2224.

click to enlarge Parkway Partners founder Flo Shornstein (left) holds one of the plants sold at a Second Saturday Program, which was started to sell plants and trees to residents to help them re-green their yards. - BRYCE LANKARD
  • Bryce Lankard
  • Parkway Partners founder Flo Shornstein (left) holds one of the plants sold at a Second Saturday Program, which was started to sell plants and trees to residents to help them re-green their yards.
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