Awesome Project: An Oak Tree for Bronx Squirrels

For Bronxites who live near it, the Bronx and Pelham Parkway is a mini Central Park. “When you’re here, you’re isolated from everything else for a moment,” says ioby Leader and nearby resident Roxanne Delgado. “It gives you a moment of zen.”

Sadly, this two-mile-long zen oasis has developed an ugly problem: untamed garbage. As a CBS New York story reported in December 2017: “Instead of taking their trash to the curb, people are taking it to a public park in the Bronx, and residents are outraged.” Roxanne says she was seeing everything from bags of clothes and kitchen scraps to bathroom sinks and window frames strewn around the lawns. The situation reached a breaking point for her last spring, when she saw a squirrel—one of her favorite features of the park—rummaging through a pile of trash. She decided enough was enough, and founded Friends of Pelham Parkway to promote stewardship of this prized green space that serves residents of several adjacent neighborhoods.

After a series of successful monthly cleanup days and tabling sessions, Roxanne is now taking the next step and raising money on ioby to buy and plant a white oak tree in the Parkway, create signage to encourage stewardship, and purchase more outreach materials for the Friends.

The luxury of nature, interrupted

Roxanne has lived in the Bronx “almost forever.” After attending Fordham University, she moved to the Pelham Parkway neighborhood almost 13 years ago to enjoy more peace and quiet. “The Parkway, the greenery, is one of the reasons I moved here,” she says. “You listen to the birds chirping, watch the squirrels digging. In the morning, I see lots of seniors sitting on the benches, just looking around, taking it in. Other times, lots of kids playing soccer, teenagers talking and lying around together, lots of dogs. Different people have different ways of using it. It’s a luxury item, in my opinion.”

Unfortunately, over time, Roxanne began to notice more and more trash building up in the Parkway. “I found I didn’t feel as comfortable walking there and started to wonder why,” she says. “I realized it was the trash.” The problem kept getting worse. “When people see some trash in an area, they start dumping more!” she says.

Sometimes it’s clear who’s making the mess, and sometimes it isn’t. Some of the trash appears mysteriously; Roxanne theorizes that people going from A to B have conflated the Parkway with a dumping ground. But sometimes, she can tell exactly who’s trashing the place—because their personal paperwork gets loose and starts blowing around! “When we could get an address, we’ve sent people letters that say, ‘Please don’t litter here!’ So they know someone is watching. I’ve also been posting flyers on cars that are regularly parked here with a nice picture of trees that asks them not to litter. I tell my friends that I work in forensic trash now! I’ve kind of become an expert on the subject.”

Roxanne says that after her group started doing monthly trash clean-ups last summer, they have seen the dumping decrease. “People would stop us and say thank you,” she says. “They would say they didn’t understand how this could happen; that this is our neighborhood, this is our park!”

“It’s also the 24-hour home of squirrels and other wildlife,” she points out. “We can go home; they can’t. Gray squirrels are not even native to NYC; they were brought here. How can we bring them here and not give them shelter and food, or at least a clean environment?”

Joining forces, creating ownership, surpassing goals

Like every great ioby Leader, Roxanne knew she could accomplish more with her neighbors than she could alone. When she decided she would do something to help the Parkway, she went to community board meetings and other neighborhood gatherings and spread the word that she wanted to hold a cleanup day. She recruited some members of Friends of Pelham Parkway at those meetings; she also signed up a couple of her friends, as well as some nearby neighbors and their kids. During the group’s first cleanup and tabling day, they got more interest from passersby. “It’s not like I have nothing else going on in my life!” she says. “I took the time to meet people and make phone calls and put out fliers because this means something; it’s important.”

Roxanne says she especially likes recruiting young people to join the Friends’ efforts. “They’re not only helping in the moment, it’s also educational,” she says. “We’re all about advocacy: getting more people to become stewards of the Parkway. That’s our long-term mission. And action speaks louder than words: even if people just walk by and don’t say anything, if they see a little boy or girl picking up trash, they might think twice next time before throwing something.”

Roxanne and her team met their first funding goal on ioby long before their deadline. That big show of support made Roxanne happy, but she wasn’t entirely surprised. “People love squirrels!” she says. “The 14-year-old girl on the CBS story said it best: ‘People love them, but they don’t think about their environment.’ So we’re a platform to remind people that yes squirrels are cute, and that we can help them with a little food, with a little shelter for their babies.”

On January 21, National Squirrel Day (yes, that holiday exists), Friends of Pelham Parkway set out a big Hallmark-style card and asked passersby to add their own message for the Parkway’s squirrels. “People really stopped and took the time to sign it!” Roxanne says. “Having them take an action like that makes them more invested in what you’re doing. They feel more ownership of the Parkway.”

Rolling with the red tape

Initially, Roxanne wanted her ioby campaign to raise money for six “squirrel houses”: little hanging nests made from recycled rubber car tires that attach to a tree branch by a steel hook. The houses make great shelters for baby squirrels especially, who can be injured or killed when high winds damage or destroy the leaf and twig nests their parents make. Roxanne named her project “Rubber Rooms for Squirrels” (because squirrels are nuts, of course!).

However, when Roxanne went to the NYC Parks Department with her plan, they put a hold on it, citing liability. “They’re worried about something falling from up high in a tree,” Roxanne explains. “But other boroughs have them, so I’m going to keep advocating for it. I want to speak to some other park managers where they have squirrel homes to ask how they did it. This initial ‘no’ doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen.”

In the meantime, Roxanne knew there were other things she could do to help the squirrels and take care of the Parkway—that’s where the oak tree and signage come in. The tree in particular will provide the little guys with shelter from the elements and acorns to eat. “Part of the purpose of having the oak trees or the squirrel homes is for people like me to do squirrel-watching, if you like to call it that. Watching them digging, climbing, hanging upside down from a tree… It’s relaxing, it’s fulfilling. When you watch, you see they come in all varieties, just like us: younger ones, older ones, better looking, average looking—there are even obese squirrels!”

Playing the long game

In the short term, Roxanne would like to keep seeing less and less trash in the Parkway. Longer term, she wants her neighbors to become more environmentally focused in general. “The end result is not for the Friends to be a cleanup crew,” she says, “it’s for people to be more grateful for what we have here. When you appreciate something, you keep it clean. The people who park here keep their cars spotless! They don’t dump on them!”

Now, in addition to her ioby campaign, Roxanne is applying for a few small grants and planning more projects to demonstrate that someone’s caring for the Parkway. Last fall, the Friends put up fun signs about Halloween; in December, they decorated a tree for the holidays. Now they’re working on planting flowers, and Roxanne is thinking about throwing a birthday party for the Parkway later this year. “We want people to know this is a living place,” she says. “It’s part of your neighborhood and a valuable part of your life.”

“The Parkway is a treasure for me, but our whole planet is a treasure,” she says. “Little habits can turn into big change. People can see the effects: ‘I changed a little bit, my neighbor changed a little bit…’ If we took these small steps, we could actually have a much cleaner planet than we have now. Worldwide, we have this climate change crisis that’s going to affect everyone. So we have to spread the word, especially to the younger generation, about how to save the planet, and to have compassion for all living things. If we have imbalance, it affects all of us.” 

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Help Roxanne and Friends of Pelham Parkway show NYC squirrels a little love this winter! An Oak Tree for Squirrels is raising money through this Thursday, February 15.

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