Pontchartrain Park tree planting project will keep growing in 2022
By Jesse Baum, Gentilly Messenger
The historic Pontchartrain Park neighborhood, once a cypress-tupelo forest, can now regain a healthy canopy, thanks to a Sustaining Our Urban Landscape (SOUL) initiative.
Since Nov. 1, 2021, SOUL volunteers have planted 469 trees in the neighborhood, according to SOUL founder and executive director Susannah Burley. And the project is continuing into 2022, beginning with a tree planting day on Saturday (Jan. 8).
Burley said the goal was originally to plant a tree in front of every home, but the project has received additional funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. With that funding, they are able to offer each resident more trees to plant.
“It’s going even better than expected,” Burley said. “We’ll be planting all of next year in Pontchartrain Park,” she added, noting that the prime planting season for trees is from mid-October to March.
Trees impart a myriad of benefits to neighborhoods — aside from beautification, they create shade, cool the air through a process known as evapotranspiration, divert stormwater and can remove pollutants from the air.
Both pollution and stormwater management are important issues for Pontchartrain Park, a relatively low-lying area that is close to industrial activity.
SOUL has conducted outreach into the community, telling residents of the initiative in-person and with doorknob hangers and mailers. With the expanded funding, Burley said, residents may now request trees for planting in their yards, in addition to receiving a tree for right-of-way between the sidewalk and the street. She says that about 10% of households have asked for yard trees.
“This is the future of how we’re going to work — working with a neighborhood to plant the whole thing. This will demonstrate to the city how communities on the frontlines of climate change can take the bull by the horns,” Burley said.
SOUL has now held several events planting native, flood-tolerant cypress, oak and magnolia trees in the neighborhood. They also help to maintain the trees that they plant up to one year after planting.
Burley said that part of successful tree planting is putting the right tree in the right place — keeping canopy spread and other factors in mind, so the tree is the correct size for its location. SOUL works closely with Parks and Parkways on the project, and Burley said the city has been very supportive of the planting project.
Burley credits District D Councilman-elect Eugene Green with the project’s conception.
“[Green said] ‘I wanna plant a tree in front of every house.’ It was such a great vision. He said that there used to be many more trees,” Burley said.
Green knows this because he lived in Pontchartrain Park during part of his childhood, the incoming councilman told Gentilly Messenger.
But when the subdivision — the country’s first suburban community built for middle-class Black residents — was constructed after World War II, it had no trees, he noted.
“In the case of Pontchartrain Park, it used to be a cypress swamp,” Green said. “And they identified it as a plot of land where they would build an African-American community, and really did a disservice by clearing all the trees out.
“And so this is a way to right something that was done incorrectly, and is a way to enhance the community,” Green said.
The early residents planted their own trees, but that canopy has taken hits from storms over the years. “We all had trees in front of our doors,” said Gretchen Bradford, president of the Pontchartrain Park Neighborhood Association. “Katrina wiped out a lot of trees, and Ida finished them off.”
The neighborhood association has been working closely with SOUL on the project. Bradford said that many residents have gotten new trees and are excited about them.
The plantings are staggered so that they are not planted before planned repairs to the streets. Once Bradford’s street is repaired, she plans on getting a tree.
“Trees beautify a neighborhood. It’s God’s way of decorating,” Bradford said.
She has also volunteered in SOUL’s community planting days and conducted outreach for the project. She noted that the trees can ameliorate air quality, control flooding and even help with energy costs by creating shade.
The Rev. Aubrey Watson Jr., pastor of Pontchartrain Park’s Holy Cross Lutheran Church since 2002 and a volunteer with the tree-planting project, echoed that praise. He came to the project through Bradford, Green and the neighborhood association.
“[It’s a] great project for water management and beautification of the neighborhood,” Watson said.
Bradford said that a big part of the project was people advocating for the trees.
“In certain communities, they don’t have a voice. They get overlooked. Not because they don’t desire things like trees — they just get overlooked,” she said. “We made our voices heard, and I know it’s not that easy all the time.”
SOUL’s next (though by no means last) planting at Pontchartrain Park will be Saturday (Jan. 8). Interested volunteers are welcome to meet at 9:30 a.m. at the former Mary D. Coghill Elementary School, 4500 block of Mendez Street.