HARLEM — Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony helped plant the city's 500,000th tree on Tuesday, marking the mid-point in a campaign to plant 1 million in the city by 2017.
Anthony helped Mayor Michael Bloomberg shovel dirt onto the bed surrounding the 11-year-old Pin Oak near the West 135th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue entrance to St. Nicholas Park, and also pledged to adopt a tree outside his home.
"When I was growing up in Brooklyn there wasn't no trees, there wasn't no grass where I was at. I always wanted to see some greenery, so now is the chance to donate some trees," said Anthony, a donor to the public-private MillionTreesNYC partnership, launched by Bloomberg in conjunction with the New York Restoration Project in 2007.
"I just want to let you guys know that I'm definitely in," Anthony said.
Bloomberg commented that trees "give us beautiful neighborhoods."
"Trees help to make our city the best in the world to live and work," the mayor said. "And if you own a home, it makes your home worth more.
"Trees do so much but in return they really ask for very little. Just a little love and attention, a little 'Tree L C,'" Bloomberg joked.
The project is a year ahead of schedule, with target planting goals exceeded by 20 percent, noted Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.
At the current pace, Benepe said that a total of 750,000 trees or more may be in the ground by the time Bloomberg leaves office in two years. That's a pace of 125,000 trees per year.
Benepe said the first 500,000 trees were planted in areas like East Harlem and central Brooklyn, which lacked canopy covers and also suffered from high asthma rates. St. Nicholas Park has thousands of trees, some dating back to the park's inception in the late 1890s.
Almost 10 percent of the new trees, or 49,045, have been planted in Manhattan. The Bronx received the most trees — 135,626, or 27 percent of the total. The next 500,000 trees will be used to fill in sidewalks that lack trees and also to create urban forests in parks and on empty land.
"I'm hearing from a lot of people who come to visit the city who haven't been here in a while saying how much greener the city is than they ever remember," Benepe said. "The challenge is to raise more private funds and keep the public funds in place."
There's also the challenge of getting New Yorkers to care for the trees once they've been planted, added Amy Freitag, executive director of the New York Restoration Project, which was founded by entertainer Bette Middler.
To that end, MillionTreesNYC has an adopt-a-tree program. Councilman Robert Jackson, who grew up playing in St. Nicholas Park, pledged to adopt a tree at Tuesday's planting and planned to urge his constituents to do the same.
"Mayor Bloomberg, pretty soon that map is going to be all green with 1 million trees," Jackson said.
New Yorkers can also call and request a tree. More than 5,000 trees will be given out to individual New Yorkers this year, said Freitag. On Saturday, Fall Volunteer Planting Day, 20,000 trees will be planted.
"We know there's an environmental benefit. We know the carbon absorption of these trees is significant at a half-million, and it'll be even more significant at a million," Freitag explained. "What we are starting to see is a real change in people's attitudes about trees and understanding how vital trees are to our life in the city and our life on the planet.
"People are starting to understand that that a tree is actually a living thing. It's not like the stop sign on your block, it's not like the fire hydrant. This thing is actually living and needs water," she added.
Bloomberg said it'll be up to kids to take care of the trees planted.
"They are the future of our city, and the future of our trees is up to them," the mayor said. "Ultimately, these kids are the ones who will care for the trees and care for the rest of us. They are the ones for whom the trees will give shade and clean air and beautify for generations to come."
More than a dozen kids from Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy IV, across the street from St. Nicholas Park on Edgecombe Avenue took the "I'm In" pledge to care for the trees.
"For me, seeing how beautiful the trees are makes me feel wonderful all over. You can't explain it," said Nareleen Ramirez, 13, an eighth-grader at the school.
"It's our future. We have to look at it as, 'How do we want our world to look,'" added her classmate, Rajean Phillips, 13.
"It's not that hard," he added with a shrug of the shoulders. "Plant a tree, adopt a tree, care for a tree."