Meet Maria Newsom-Fahey, Who Believes Greening Brings Communities Together

Meet Maria Newsom-Fahey, Who Believes Greening Brings Communities Together
maria newsom fahey

Have you noticed the nice solid tree pit guards on Coney Island Avenue, or the shrubs at the Gulf station on the corner of CIA and Foster? Did you know Maria Newsom-Fahey is at least part of the reason those exist? The PS 217 mom, avid gardener, and “I-know-it-sounds-corny” patriot sat down with us to talk neighborhood pride and how greening brings communities together.

Maria lives in the Parkville neighborhood, just west of Coney Island Avenue, where row houses and concrete front yards are the norm. The stretch of Foster leading up to her block, though, has some newly-planted trees, and it’s no surprise when we show up that she’s watering one in front of her house. Maria explains she’s always seen the beauty of the area, but not all of her neighbors felt the same.

“When we first moved here a few years ago,” Maria says, “there was some graffiti and broken glass around, and one little boy said, ‘You know, Miss Maria, this is not a very good neighborhood.’ I said, ‘It is a good neighborhood–and you make your neighborhood, too. You’re part of what makes a neighborhood good.’

“I gave my neighbor the graffiti removal form, and the city came, and they took care of it. Removing graffiti, picking up trash, planting plants, I think it’s all really important. It’s quality of life issues. I don’t want my children or any children to feel bad about where they live. I think it’s important, formatively, to feel good about where you come from.

“That side of Coney Island Avenue is gorgeous,” she says, gesturing eastward, “but there’s also sort of an urban, connected houses, iron dooryard aesthetic that’s appealing, too. In Boerum Hill, where I come from, the houses are connected. It’s a little different aesthetic. I’ve seen what you can do with them.”

She mentions a street tree she saw when she first moved in with a cement collar poured around its base. After speaking to a forester at an Environmental Committee meeting, the two worked for over a year to get the cement around the tree dug up. She has kept up contact with the Parks Department since then, which has visibly paid off around her block.

Her larger interest in creating a beautiful space alongside her neighbors, which has lead E 9th St. to the Greenest Block in Brooklyn contest three years in a row, started after she realized that while her block mates seemed to be interested in tending to their gardens and local street trees, they didn’t know how. “You’re not gonna find one woman who says she doesn’t like a fresh flower,” she says, “but people haven’t been taught how to support greenery in New York.”

So, she admits, it felt like kind of a joke when the block started doing Greenest Block in Brooklyn. “Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Fort Greene–these are the neighborhoods that participate and win year after year after year. But the way I look at it is, it’s actually more important for blocks like ours and areas like ours. In Kensington and Parkville, people have been putting driveways in their front yards illegally. It’s aggressively anti-green.

“By registering for the Greenest Block in Brooklyn, I thought, ‘Well, we’re not gonna win, but at least people will know that we’re aware of all the new trees being planted, and have a little block pride, and house pride.’ I put flyers in people’s mailboxes, because that competition is really about 100% participation. It’s about getting everybody on the block to do something.”

maria newsom fahey and neighbors clean by donald loggins

Maria and neighbors clean up E 9th, by Donald Loggins

And that’s exactly, Maria says, what her block has done. Her neighbors–especially the kids–have been extremely receptive to her greening and cleaning initiatives, and Maria sees clean-up days as a good, free way to keep children occupied and socially involved.”There are kids who have tennis or karate, and their days are very structured,” she says, “but around here, a lot of the kids don’t have that structure.” When local kids agree to help, she says, they spend the day outside talking with peers instead of being stuck indoors.

“We dig, we weed,” she says, but acknowledges the work can’t simply be left up to a few people. “We’ll do elderly neighbors’ tree beds, of course, but we also want more homeowners to take responsibility for their own property. Peer pressure can work in a good way,” she says. “When things are looking nice, it can have a positive trickle effect.”

The peer pressure worked for Maria when she wrote to the Gulf station on the corner of Coney Island Ave. and Foster Ave.

“I said, ‘Look, there are trees in the schoolyard, 1,400 children walk by your station every day, Sunoco and Mobil plant–you know, I totally shamed them–and I didn’t get a response, but one week later, they’d done it.”

Maria says she fills empty milk jugs with water and tends to the plants at the station, and has even recruited local crossing guards to help keep them watered and trash-free. The power of suggestion is a running theme.

“It’s important, because we’ve got all these tree beds on Coney Island Avenue, and if you see weeds and garbage in the Gulf kiosk, it encourages you to throw garbage in the tree beds. I’m also working on getting pickers like they have at the Parade Ground to pick up garbage, so the parents can help pick up garbage after school and let the kids see that this stuff doesn’t just miraculously disappear.”

In terms of the tree guards she helped get installed along Coney near 217, Maria says, it was a similar case. “I called Greenfield‘s office, and I said, ‘I’m really hoping to get tree guards for those trees,’ and they said they’d put in a call to support it. But when I went to a tree guard clinic,  I was told they were for residential blocks, not commercial strips. I was discouraged from filling out the application then–but the next day, they were put in.”

In both cases, Maria acknowledges the importance of thanking the people who helped her make things happen–whether or not they’re responsive. She followed up the Gulf planting with a note, as well as thanking the woman who helped her at Councilman Greenfield’s office. “I think that may have helped,” she says, “because they’ve since put in other tree guards along Coney Island, in the district, and they’ve put them on Foster, which was not requested.”

maria newsom fahey gulf station by donald loggins

A shrub at the Gulf station, by Donald Loggins

Maria is aware of the resources available to her block, and it’s owed to maintaining the relationships she forges. “We’ve been to Greenwood Cemetery for the free mulch, and now I’m using mulch I got from Sanitation through Louise Bruce and Compost for Brooklyn. Now that she’s working for Sanitation, there’s a free program for community gardens and block associations. I’ve gotten free bulbs from FDC. For very little money, but with a little bit of organization and informal Sunday afternoon greening events, we’ve gotten the block looking pretty good.”

As for her continued communication with the Parks Department, she says each party benefits. “We’ve got several new trees–we put in tree requests, and we get the trees quickly–and it’s because we have a track record of taking care of the trees, and they know it. We want the trees, and they need a little help and guidance knowing where to put them. I think they feel a real pressure to put these trees in, especially in Brooklyn this year, because this is the last year of this mayor. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the program after this.”

“My thinking about these street trees has evolved. The truth is, that sidewalk tree, even if I plant it and take care of it, it’s not my tree–it belongs to the city. Our population is going to grow so much in the next 30 years that if we don’t adopt more sustainable practices, it will be a real problem. When people cement their yards to park their cars in, there’s less area for rainwater to get absorbed in the ground, and it floods the sewers, and backs up. Trees are beautiful, but we also need them to clean the air and keep the area cooler in the summer.”

She mentions the trees at the PS 217 schoolyard, where she has recently been named co-president of the Parents Association. “That’s our biggest green space,” she says. It’s our local playground, open to the community nights and weekends, and it needs to work for the children.”

Now there are classes in the PS 217 garden, and a compost bin has been built. “Every kindergarten classroom is in the garden several times in the spring, planting. We’re thinking of starting small, and just having kids collect the apple cores on Tuesdays,” she says, adding that they hope eventually to have a shed for tools and add to the garden curriculum.

It’s obvious that her concerns don’t lie simply with being green, though–Maria wants a part in what she calls a “living in harmony effort.” She’s so interested in community activism, particularly in the realm of PS 217, she says, because she considers herself a patriotic American.

“What I mean is, I hold the best ideals of this country close to my heart. I don’t think we often meet those ideals, but that isn’t to say that we shouldn’t stop striving for them. People do see this as a land of opportunity, a land of peace, a land of acceptance, and our school is a microcosm of that. We speak 32 languages–so when people remove their kids to send them to a private school that’s more homogenous, it hurts me, because I feel like we’re all a part of the great American Dream.

“We’re all immigrants–some of us you have to go some generations back, but a lot of us are coming from other countries and moving onto the block. The school embraces them, assists them, we have a family need fund–we work hard to help them make a difficult transition, and I want my kids to see that so that they can be complex, well-prepared, tolerant adults. I consider diversity an asset of our school, and our community.

“For instance, this is the most amazing block I’ve witnessed, because no one group dominates. It’s about a third Orthodox, it’s about a third Pakistani, it’s old Irish, my next door neighbor just moved here from Carroll Gardens, there are all kinds of people–people from India, the Caribbean, some of my Orthodox neighbors are from Central Europe, some of my neighbors from Central Europe aren’t Orthodox. To have all sort of people living side by side, tolerating each other–we don’t do that very well in many parts of the world.

“That’s what I mean when I talk about ideals. That’s what I want for this country. I want this to be where people cut out the BS, and just live side by side. Not necessarily being best friends, not necessarily agreeing politically, but just tolerating each other. I have two boys, and I don’t want them to go to war, and I think there are things we can all come around–beautiful flowers, good food. Things that appeal to our humanity, that bring us together.”

cia tree pit guards by donald loggins

Tree pit guards in front of PS 217, by Donald Loggins

Her neighbors’ interest in working together is how she returns to the topic of the Greenest Block in Brooklyn. “The ‘worse’ block you have, the better. It’s more needed, and it’s so easy to do. You technically have to register as a block association, but don’t get stumped by that, because this block certainly didn’t have one. I made one up–‘the East 9th Street Block Association’–and I was told when I went to get that tree guard application that it’s totally fine. There’s no paperwork, there’s nothing you have to do except call yourself that.

“The point is,” she sums it up, “just take the action. I’m very much a ‘take-the-action’ person. Life is short–in five years, I’ll be in a different place, my kids will be in a different place–just try. We’re gonna try and water those trees Monday morning,” she says, motioning towards Foster Avenue, around the corner from her house, “and it’s gonna be a disaster the first time with all the buckets and hoses. But we’re gonna do it, because they’re in distress–they’re not gonna wait. Take an action, however imperfect, and then the miracle of it is that people come together to help you. Just start it, initiate.

“Register your block for the Greenest Block in Brooklyn, volunteer at your school, whatever the reality of the situation is, embrace it, and improve it. Go to one PA meeting–the school doesn’t provide lunch for teachers on the last day of school. These are things the Parents Associations do, making it a more pleasant experience for teachers to work there, and for kids to be there.

“I’m not doing anything that’s outside me and my life. I volunteer at my kids’ school, I enter my block into the Greenest Block in Brooklyn, and I walked by that Gulf station every day and it bothered me. I don’t think you have to go much further than your own backyard to find a place to volunteer. The needs are out there if you just open your eyes and find a way that you can get involved. You take the first step, and people will support you.”