into the woods

Pave Forest Park and Put Up a Parking Lot?

The “Forever Wild” woods in Queens will remain, for now.

Photo: Max Clarke
Photo: Max Clarke
Photo: Max Clarke

I’ve learned not to walk too deep into Forest Park when I’m in a hurry. It’s easy to get turned around amid the magical old red and white oaks, their walnut and tulip tree allies, and the understory of ferns and violets and poison ivy that grow right in the middle of Queens. I was late to a phone appointment because of my meandering once. The truth — that I got lost in the woods in New York City — seemed so implausible that I considered making up an excuse. The fact is, I’d moved to Woodhaven to spend as much time as possible on these trails. Before the move, I posted a photo of the trees that filled the land across the way from our place and called them my new best friends. It’s the kind of joke people make on social media, but I was serious: Despite having lived in New York City for more than 20 years, I am not a city person. Still, living at the edge of 285-acre forest preserve for the past five years has changed my sense of what a city can be.

But on September 1, hours before the rains of Hurricane Ida flooded the borough, my phone dinged with a text from a friend, a Queens native. “Is this real??” he asked, with three weepy-faced emojis. “Forest Park?” He forwarded a tweet from my state assemblywoman, Jenifer Rajkumar, announcing her plan to create more parking in Woodhaven by appropriating what she called “vacant park space” at the very Forest Park corner across from me.

I wasn’t in denial that something might happen to the woodlands; the existence of the trees on that particular stretch of land has been contentious for decades. They surround a section of the Long Island Rail Road that was abandoned in 1962. Some locals have called for transforming the old tracks into a “Queensway,” a walking trail like the High Line where native plantings and wildlife could flourish. Other residents who commute more than an hour into the city on the J train — or much longer on buses from severe transit deserts out in the Rockaways — have argued for restoring the train line or converting it into a branch of the subway. Whatever might happen, I’ve tried to take comfort in the “Forever Wild” designation given to the woodlands there. At least some trees, I hoped, would stay. But I had never considered a parking lot, and now I realized how naïve I’d been. Woodhaven is a neighborhood of enthusiastic drivers, and scheming to find parking may be the defining local pastime.

In any part of the city, “Forever Wild” is an aspirational term for remnants of native ecosystems, and Forest Park is no exception: The area was logged and farmed extensively for centuries before the park opened in 1895. Since then, oaks have spread across the ridges. Tulip trees joined them on the lower slopes. Some of the trees in the park are more than 150 years old, but many elders have fallen. The survivors struggle against pollution and pests and diseases, against joggers and bikers and ATVs that put stress on root systems and disrupt the undergrowth, against a changing climate and an onslaught of invasive species that are rapidly colonizing the woodlands. Deep in the forest, non-native Norway maples and invasive cork saplings are circling old-growth trees, possibly contributing to their demise. Though the Parks Department describes the preserve as “the largest contiguous oak forest in Queens” and a brochure featured on the agency’s website (compiled in 1993) mentions a plethora of oak seedlings, it’s rare to see young oaks flourishing now. Those I do encounter are usually held up by stakes, planted on land cleared by human hands.

After reading my friend’s text, I looked out my window at the trees across the way, their leaves vibrant even on a gloomy morning. This parking-lot scheme would not just mean bulldozing the trees; it would also require the earth beneath them to be flattened. Forest Park lies at the far southern edge of the Wisconsin glacier, and when the ice melted about 18,000 years ago, it left behind pebbles and giant boulders and hills and depressions — a “knob and kettle” terrain. To pave it would require scraping away knobs and filling in kettles. Standing on the highest rise in the dead of winter, looking out across the flatlands toward Jamaica Bay, I can almost imagine the beauty and stillness of this place before Europeans arrived, when the Munsee Lenape sought to “walk so gently on the earth” that they left it undisturbed. To flatten it all would be an insult I can hardly bear to imagine.

I tweeted opposition to the assemblywoman’s plan, joining locals, environmentalists, climate-justice activists, transit advocates, and park lovers. Still heartsick that night, I was out walking the dogs on the periphery of the park when clouds began to race across the sky, trees started to whip, fallen leaves spun in eerie circles. The dogs and I ran home, dashing indoors not long before the torrent of Ida began.

Heavy storms are strange on this land. Water accumulates unpredictably. My house sits on one knob, and the trees across the street grow along a briefly gentle then steep rise to another hill where abandoned tracks lie. Between these hills runs a road from the co-op complex to the north — a road that did not exist in the 1950s. During Ida, that street transformed into a river that overwhelmed the busier, lower-lying cross street below. The lake that formed at the corner was like something out of my Miami childhood, a tropical deluge that sent water raging halfway up car doors as they struggled through the intersection. The next morning, there were gouges in the earth where the rain had fallen down a stone retaining wall at the foot of the train trestle. The sidewalk was strewn with dirt, rocks, and gravel. The forest soaked up Ida’s fury, while the paved, flattened land alongside it became a hazardous flood. It was as though the storm had showed up to underscore the folly of the parking-lot idea.

The morning after the storm, I tried to find out how firm (or flimsy) a “Forever Wild” designation might be in parking-obsessed Queens. The Department of Transportation acknowledged a meeting with Rajkumar but offered no details. Then the assemblywoman’s office claimed in an email to me that she had never intended to target any trees or, despite her original announcement, any parkland. When I followed up, her office went silent. Later they told some journalists her plan targeted a paved sitting area surrounded by fencing on co-op property — which isn’t at all what she had announced. “A staffer claimed Rajkumar had never proposed parking at that corner,” said the Queens Chronicle in a scathing unsigned editorial. “But she did, in writing, on the internet, in public.”

I had written to the Parks Department and was told no official proposal to convert the woods had been filed. But those conversions do happen. In 2013, a section of Four Sparrow Marsh — a “Forever Wild” salt marsh in southern Brooklyn home to endangered saltmarsh sparrows — was converted into a Toys ’R’ Us parking lot during breeding season. The Bloomberg administration maintained that the area was never designated parkland despite long-standing city signs and Parks Department maps to the contrary. The store is now closed, and the lot sits empty, gathering trash.

In late October, Rajkumar announced she was dropping her proposal for parking on any “park land,” public or private. It was a relief to hear, but I know now the “Forever Wild” status of Forest Park is incredibly precarious. Come parking lots or lantern flies or floods, the trees will have to survive where they’re rooted. For now, the woods remain, and they are at our mercy.

Pave Forest Park and Put Up a Parking Lot?