Roots of dismay in Pelham Bay

ROOTS OF DISPAIR: 87-year-old John DiStefano has seen what was once a quaint city tree slowly destroy his Pelham Bay sidewalk and meddle with his sewer system. He says the Parks Dept. told him they’d fix the concrete gap in the sidewalk years ago. He’s still waiting.
Photo by Ben Kochman

John DiStefano didn’t give it a second thought when the city planted a tree in front of his Pelham bay home ten years ago.

Then the sapling started growing.

These days, the 87-year-old local is stumped by the damage the tree has caused to the sidewalk in front of his Wilkinson Street house.

The tree’s roots have cracked and lifted the sidewalk, creating a three-inch gap between DiStefano’s part of the street and the rest of the block. Passersby often stumble –and the trip is even more difficult during the winter, when the sidewalk gets icy.

“Each year it gets worse,” said DiStefano, a former city worker who now uses a cane to get around. “People are going to trip and fall, there’s no question about it.”

One million issues?

DiStefano is just one of the east Bronx residents griping about the dark side of the city’s Bloomberg-era plan to plant one million trees.

Current city policy says that homeowners cannot refuse a tree being planted on their property. Yet damage caused by those trees can sometimes take years to repair, with property owners forced to pay for clogged pipes and other issues in the meantime. They can also be liable for lawsuits by people who trip and hurt themselves.

DiStefano’s family has been trying to convince the city to fix his Wilkinson Street sidewalk since 2009, to no avail. Foresters from the Parks Dept. have dropped by twice to assess the tree, most recently prioritizing it as a mere 70 out of 100.

The agency claims on its website to prioritize repairs by both the extent of the damage and the site’s foot traffic. The city spends around $3 million to repair 1,500 sites each year through its Trees and Sidewalks program, said a spokesman for the Parks Department.

But DiStefano’s ever-rising sidewalk – located one block from Colucci Playground– has not yet made the cut.

Country Club spoiled

The snub has angered the senior’s daughter, Celeste Russo, who says that other neighborhoods nearby get preferential treatment.

She’s seething over the sidewalks and tree protections built by the city in nearby Country Club.

“Parks told us that they ran out of funds, they couldn’t do it, ‘” said Russo. “But I saw what they did in Country Club, and those trees weren’t half as bad as my dad’s tree.”

More costs for retiree

The family hopes that city brass, along with local elected officials, will hear their pleas. Until then, they are crossing their fingers that no one gets hurt on the sidewalk and sues for damages.

DiStefano will continue paying a plumber around $400 every 18 months to clean out his pipes. He says he also shells out a hefty fee each fall to someone who cleans out his roof gutter, which collects leaves from the overhanging tree.

But the Pelham Bay local refuses to hire a contractor to fix the root of the problem.

“The city built this tree,” he said, “and they are the ones who should repair it.”

Reach Reporter Ben Kochman at (718) 742–3394. E-mail him at Follow him on Twitter @benkochman.
THE GRISLY “TREE” TAILS: A city tree planted over a decade ago has created a three-inch gap in John DiStefano’s Pelham Bay sidewalk. But the Parks Department has put off rooting out the damage for years.
Photo by Ben Kochman

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