In Bronx War of the Rosebushes, Volunteers Left to Care for Public Plants

By Patrick Wall on June 19, 2012 12:53pm 

The head of a Grand Concourse-area merchants group recently uncovered a row of rosebushes along the 161st Street overpass. Before then, the bushes, which are under the purview of the Transportation Department, were surrounded by tall weeds and trash.
The head of a Grand Concourse-area merchants group recently uncovered a row of rosebushes along the 161st Street overpass. Before then, the bushes, which are under the purview of the Transportation Department, were surrounded by tall weeds and trash.
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161st Street BID/Cary Goodman

GRAND CONCOURSE — Cary Goodman was just steps away from the Yankee Stadium subway station earlier this month when he noticed a glimmer of pink out of the corner of one eye.

There, in raised beds along the 161st Street underpass that runs beneath the Grand Concourse, stood dozens of flowering rosebushes almost entirely concealed by fearsome rows of weeds.

As the head of the 161st Street Business Improvement District, Goodman decided to take action. He recruited two local city sanitation workers, one a former gardener from Puerto Rico, who agreed to weed the unruly strips.

After the beds were freshly cleared, Goodman asked the Parks Department simply to maintain them. Instead, they referred him to the Department of Transportation, Goodman said.

Without the help of either agency, Goodman has begun asking local merchants to underwrite the cost of caring for the rosebushes.

As Goodman learned, Parks and the DOT often divvy up maintenance duties for landscaped sections of the streetscape. But with reduced agency budgets, roadside greenery sometimes gets neglected, advocates said, leaving concerned citizens to handle the watering, mulching and weeding themselves.

"Even after this beautiful set of plants has been uncovered," Goodman said, "we still can’t seem to find a way to get the collaboration between the agencies we need for it to be maintained."

DOT spokesman Nicholas Mosquera said the department is responsible for the 161st Street underpass, which includes the rows of rosebushes that Goodman said he cleared without the department's assistance.

"We are currently working with the 161st Street BID and other local stakeholders to redesign the foliage in these areas," he said.

Beginning six years ago, the DOT oversaw a $52 million renovation of the area around 161st Street and the Grand Concourse, part of a recently designated historic district often called the Champs-Élysées of the Bronx.

During construction, improvements were made to the 161st Street underpass with the rosebushes, Lou Gehrig Plaza outside the Bronx County Building, and the Grand Concourse from 161st to 166th streets, where planted medians were installed.

The north side of the 161st Street underpass.
The north side of the 161st Street underpass.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

After the work was completed in late 2008, the DOT and Parks Department signed a maintenance agreement, according to the two agencies. DOT would tend to the plant beds along the 161st Street underpass and the Grand Concourse malls north of 165th Street, while Parks would cover Lou Gehrig Plaza and the Grand Concourse malls from 161st to 165th streets.

But, according to community members, both departments have struggled to maintain their shares of the planted streetscape, forcing volunteers to fill the caretaking gaps.

"It’s horrible," said Jose Rodriguez, district manager of Bronx Community Board 4.

"Every month I mention this, especially during the summer, but it’s always the same old, same old," he said, noting that the agencies are strapped for resources.

 A Parks Department spokesman said maintenance crews clean Lou Gehrig Plaza four to five times a week, as well as the Grand Concourse malls on weekend mornings.

Rodriguez said he sometimes must recruit participants from a courthouse alternative-sentencing program, as well as Department of Sanitation workers, to do maintenance work on the area’s traffic islands and medians.

William Casari, a member of Community Board 4’s parks committee, often waters roadside trees along the Grand Concourse and organizes annual volunteer days in two nearby parks.

"I think there should certainly be more help from Parks," said Casari. "I do feel like we’re picking up the slack."

Private workers throughout the city assist the Parks Department in caring for its 29,000 acres of land, often with funding from nonprofit groups or merchants who have a financial stake in their neighborhoods’ appearance.

But this arrangement benefits some communities more than others, said Sam Goodman, an urban planner in the Bronx borough president’s office.

"Typically, the privatization of these resources tends to favor wealthy communities," said Goodman, mentioning Manhattan’s West Side, where the private group that oversees the public High Line park commands a $13 million annual budget.

The 161st Street BID, meanwhile, makes do with $190,000 each year.

"We don’t have enough money in our budget to just say, ‘We’ll send our guys up here,’" said Cary Goodman, referring to the planted stretches along 161st Street.

William Ford, who lives in Concourse Village and strolls along the 161st Street underpass most days, said he had never noticed the rosebushes there until Goodman cleared the beds a couple weeks ago.

"It wasn’t taken care of," said Ford, 61, who recalled thick weeds, tall grass and piles of trash in the beds before the roses were revealed. "It certainly didn’t look like this."

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