On a rainy spring morning, an old cherry tree was beginning to blossom in a little park along Cherry Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Several protesters surrounded the tree to protect it from the New York City workers who were about to cut it down. Police officers moved in, arrested the activists, and the sound of a chain saw filled the air. The tree went down.
“There it goes, the last cherry tree on Cherry Street,” said the 72-year-old poet Eileen Myles, who stood in the drizzle bearing witness to the scene. “There’s been cherry trees here for hundreds of years. But not anymore.”
For more than a year, Myles, the author of more than 20 books of poetry, fiction and essays, including the cult-hit novel “Chelsea Girls,” has been an ardent crusader in the fight between a group of Lower East Side residents and the city’s powers that be. At issue is the contentious demolition of East River Park, the 50-odd acre urban waterfront green space that runs alongside the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, and the cherry tree was chopped down to accommodate the city’s plans.
Myles, who uses the pronoun “they” and was wearing tinted spectacles, lightly ripped jeans and a brown trucker’s cap, took a picture of the arboreal carnage with their cellphone and posted it on Instagram, where they have more than 30,000 followers.
“The trees have been talking to each other,” they said. “They’ve been talking through their roots. This tree knew this was coming.”
The city started tearing down East River Park last year as part of the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, a plan that aims to improve the area’s flood protection capabilities. Once the current park is demolished, the city plans to raise it eight to 10 feet by covering it with landfill, in effect building it anew.
The activists don’t dispute the need for some kind of climate-driven action, but they oppose the city’s strategy of razing a park beloved to generations of Lower East Siders who appreciate its scruffy athletic fields, rusty barbecue pits and concrete chess tables.
Huddled beside Myles in the rain was Sarah Wellington, an artist in her 30s who wore a Democracy Now! tote bag and took video of the workers with her phone. “We believe these cherry trees were between 80 and 100 years old,” she said. “This is Indigenous land that was stolen back in 1643 and now it’s happening all over again.”
“I didn’t know so much about Eileen Myles until recently,” she added, “but I know Eileen is a bolt of lightning. You should see Eileen run.”
The prior morning, Myles was arrested after they had dashed across the same site in an attempt to defend a tree from getting chopped down. They ended up spending much of the day at the nearby Seventh Precinct. “You need the time to get arrested and I had little to do yesterday,” they said. “But it felt good to get arrested. This is civil disobedience.”
These days, Myles enjoys the status of esteemed downtown New York cultural figure. Their career has included a poetry collection published on a mimeograph machine in the 1970s and a memoir funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship in recent years, and they are now often stopped on the street by young and deferential writers who wish to express appreciation for the work Myles produced in a grittier city that lives on only in myth. Protecting that vanishing New York is part of the reason Myles has become one the park’s guardians.
A resident of the same rent-stabilized East Village apartment since the 1970s, Myles toiled on the margins for decades before experiencing a mainstream revival upon the 2015 reissue of their 1994 autobiographical novel, “Chelsea Girls.” It won new admirers, suddenly appearing tucked inside tote bags at bookish Brooklyn coffee shops, and a character based on the author appeared on the show “Transparent.”
But throughout the years of obscurity and literary fame, East River Park was the writer’s dependable urban oasis. Myles scribbled poems while smoking cigarettes and sitting on its benches. They stretched their legs on the same tree for 40 years before going on runs. And during the bleakest chapters of the pandemic they found solace by watching the river.
So when the city engaged its plan, Myles sprang into action. They’ve used their appearances at literary events to broadcast the message and they wrote an impassioned essay defending the park for Artforum. They have organized a march that brought out New Yorkers like Chloë Sevigny and Ryan McGinley, and they helped found an activist group, “1000 people 1000 trees.” And although the demolition is well underway, they have protested persistently at the site, snapping pictures of chain-saw-wielding workers to post on Instagram with captions like “Tree killer.”
After the last of the cherry tree was thrown into a chipper, workers began mowing down a London plane, and its hacked limbs were now cascading to the ground. One activist let loose a harrowing shriek. Myles locked arms with three protesters and started chanting to the tree.
“Things that might have once been corny to me don’t feel corny anymore,” Myles said as they began peddling their bike back to the East Village. “Ever since this all started for me over a year ago it has become my heart. My girlfriend at the time told me, ‘I feel I’ve lost you to the park.’”
The F.D.R. Drive became part of the East River, and there was an explosion at the Con Ed plant on 14th Street that created a blackout. Older residents of the public housing projects that surround the park, including Baruch Houses and the Jacob Riis Houses, were trapped in their buildings for days because of the deluge. Implementing flood protection into Lower Manhattan became a priority, and the city’s attention turned to East River Park.
Initially, there was a plan that the activists wholeheartedly supported. It proposed that a giant berm be built along the site’s western side, relying on East River Park as a natural sponge, without the need of radically altering the park itself. In 2018, however, when the de Blasio administration was expected to finalize the project, the city declared that plan infeasible and moved forward with its current strategy. Many community members were outraged. An opposition group, East River Park Action, sued the city last year but has been largely unsuccessful in court.
“We’re certainly familiar with Eileen Myles and have seen what they think of and have written about the park,” said Ian Michaels, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Design and Construction. “The protesters have their right to protest. The timeline was affected by some lawsuits but the project is continuing.”
Some of the phone-wielding activists have had to contend with accusations that they are practicing the brand of civic selfishness that goes by the term Nimby-ism. “Some have said we’re just white lefty tree-huggers,” Myles said. “How is it that after 44 years here, though, I’m still just an interloper?”
On the recent spring morning, as city workers chopped down the Cherry Street trees, a longtime resident of a nearby housing complex, Elizabeth Ruiz, 55, was walking her Shih Tzu past the protesters. Known in the neighborhood as DJ Dat Gurl Curly, Ms. Ruiz performed house and disco sets at the park’s amphitheater for years until the band shell was bulldozed last December.
“At the end of the day, I’m not so mad at gentrification and change,” she said. “But I don’t get why they have to destroy the trees and everything else in the park. If you knock down a tree here, then you knock me down, too.”
After the bike ride back to the East Village, Myles sat down to breakfast at Veselka and began reminiscing about coming to New York at age 24 in the 1970s with aspirations of becoming a poet — a time when the very notion of the city pumping money into a ramshackle downtown park would have been farcical.
Myles, who grew up in a working-class Roman Catholic household near Boston, found the scene they were searching for in the old East Village church that houses the Poetry Project. There they befriended greats like Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan and Allen Ginsberg, and writers smoked cigarettes in the back rooms while they talked craft. To make the rent, Myles waited tables at the Tin Palace, a jazz and poetry club on the Bowery, and worked as a librarian, a bouncer, a bike messenger and a clerk at Bleecker Bob’s, the Greenwich Village record store. Driving around town in a pink truck while working for a radical lesbian newspaper distribution company, they also delivered stacks of gay male pornography magazines and music publications.
“When I finally got here I was like, ‘Wait, you mean this city is actually real?’” Myles said. “Bob Dylan was here. Andy Warhol was here. Everyone who drove a cab was writing a novel. Every waitress was a dancer. It was astonishing to me that people in New York were actually who they said they were.”
In the 1980s, as the AIDS crisis ravaged downtown New York, Myles watched as close friends died. Spurred to embrace sobriety, Myles formed a bond with the park: jogging past litter and needles along the East River at dusk, they blasted Maria Callas singing “Aida” on a Walkman to honor an opera-loving friend who had died of the disease.
“I stopped drinking and drugging, and that’s when I began running in the park,” Myles said. “It became my ritual and has remained so for years. It became my tool for sanity. The park became the best writing studio I’ve ever been in.”
As Myles sees it, the park is also a downtown time capsule, a green urban ruin that preserves a city that has all but perished.
“There was time to make lots of mistakes back then,” Myles said. “There was time to waste, and that’s the thing everybody deserves. And the park is wasted space. Uncontrolled vernacular space. So the city said, ‘This can’t be.’”
After Myles left Veselka, they got ready to speak at the Strand bookstore that evening with the novelist Colm Tóibín. During the event, they mentioned their fight for the park. The next day, they were off to Marfa, Texas, where they had bought a home some years ago. They would be joining their rescue pit bull, Honey, and finishing an assignment for The New Yorker; in the story, they intended to sneak in a reference to the park.
In fact, the park now seeps into Myles’s work constantly, especially the poetry. A recent poem, “120 Years and What Did You See,” ends like this:
I look up, you’re shaking
meeting, you’re bigger you’re wiser you’re stronger
than me, and always will be. Each of us walking
around and blessing