New Trees and Community Gardens Sprout from ConEd Blackout Settlement

By Jeanmarie Evelly on May 22, 2014 4:03pm 

 Students celebrated the opening of a new terrace garden at William Cullen Bryant High School on Nov. 4, 2013. The garden was one of 10 planted at schools in western Queens by The Horticultural Society of New York with funding from the Greening Western Queens fund.
Students celebrated the opening of a new terrace garden at William Cullen Bryant High School on Nov. 4, 2013. The garden was one of 10 planted at schools in western Queens by The Horticultural Society of New York with funding from the Greening Western Queens fund.
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DNAinfo/Jeanmarie Evelly

QUEENS — Years after a blackout wiped out power in swaths of western Queens, money from a settlement with Con Edison has been used to turn over a new, green leaf in the neighborhoods affected by it — including 962 trees and 40 new school and community gardens.

The Greening Western Queens fund will wrap up this year, a $7.9 million, three-year initiative used to support environmental programs in Astoria, Long Island City, Woodside and Sunnyside. 

The funding was part of a larger settlement with Con Edison in the wake of the 2006 summer blackout, which left some 174,000 residents in the dark for nine days.

"Ordinary people got motivated — that’s the spark that led to that result," said Alyssa Bonilla, a Sunnyside resident who was one of the earliest members of Western Queens Power for the People, which organized the push for compensation.

The nearly $8 million portion of the settlement designated for community greening was administered by the North Star Fund, which held two "visioning sessions" in 2010 to solicit ideas from the public on how the money should be used.

"We were basically responsible for implementing the vision of what the community wanted," said executive director Hugh Hogan. "They wanted some kind of legacy to come out of this really bad incident, that people could see and touch."

One of those legacies is an influx of trees. Since 2011, more than 950 have been planted in western Queens through grants provided to community groups such as City Parks Foundation, and another 200 are expected to be planted.

The fund also spurred collaboration between different neighborhood organizations, Hogan said. Sunnyside Community Services, for example, partnered with Trees New York to run an internship program training young people in green jobs.

"The groups really took it upon themselves to form different relationships," he said.

Though this is the last year for Greening Western Queens, several groups supported by the fund said they plan to continue programs started under it.

The Queens Library received funding to launch a "Greening Libraries" initiative at seven branches, where it offered environmentally-themed activities — like clothing swaps or how to make jewelry from recycled materials — and started gardens and compost collections.

Daniel Nkansah, coordinator of children's services for Queens Library, said they plan to continue offering green-themed programs, and the gardens will be maintained through either volunteers or library staff.

"The gardens were very, very popular, and we're finding a way to continue it," he said.

The composting collection sites at the Steinway and Broadway branches will continue as well, under BIG!Compost — a program of Build It Green!NYC and the NYC Compost Project which also received support from Greening Western Queens funding.

What started small by a group of community garden volunteers in Astoria grew to more than a dozen food scrap collection sites, and the program now receives support from the Department of Sanitation.

"The Greening Western Queens fund definitely helped us be able to expand to a level where we were able to reach out more, and do more in the community," said Gina Baldwin, BIG!Compost's public engagement and programming coordinator.

Hogan says he hopes the initiative can serve as a model for how local neighborhoods can become more sustainable.

"I think one of the legacies is that you can do this successfully in a community-based way, and that communities ultimately can be leaders," he said.

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