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Wendell: Memorial Trees still standing in Forest Park 102 years later

Of all the memorials in and about Woodhaven, of all of the monuments and tributes to those who sacrificed their lives for our country, I think the most touching is the Memorial Trees in Forest Park.

Woodhaven was a small but growing community and World War I took a tremendous toll on its population. Week after week, names of young Woodhaven men who were killed in battle appeared under the somber headline Taps on the front page of the very newspaper you are reading right now.

By the time the war had ended, over 60 bright young lights had been extinguished, their lives ‘sacrificed on the altar of liberty,’ as the Leader-Observer described it in 1918.

After the war had ended the families of the fallen, supported by the residents of Woodhaven, came up with a plan to create a unique memorial that would live on for years to come.

One tree was planted in the name of each fallen soldier along the road through Forest Park. On Sunday, May 11th 1919, residents from Woodhaven gathered in Forest Park, across from the golf clubhouse, and took part in a somber ceremony honoring their lives.

That year, and each year after, the families of the fallen would decorate their loved ones’ tree for Memorial Day. For the families, it was more than just a memorial. For them, it was a place to grieve their losses.

The names of the fallen soldiers would be etched in bronze and affixed to a large marble monument. If you want to see those names, that monument now sits in the front yard of American Legion Post 118 on 91st Street and 89th Avenue.

But it’s the memorial in Forest Park, the long row of 103-year old trees, which really touched me as each of those trees each had a very personal connection to the families of the dead.

As time marched on, the tradition began to fade and was all but lost by the time yet another World War came to pass. Pretty soon, even the memories of this lovely tradition were gone.

But this tradition was revived in 2015 when the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society rediscovered the purpose of the trees. And ever since, residents of Woodhaven have decorated the trees and paid honor to these young men from Woodhaven.

But on top of paying tribute to the soldiers, I think the purpose of the tree decorations is to honor the families and the pain and loss that they all suffered.

On Memorial Day, we all pause and pay tribute to the soldiers who lost their lives in service to our country. And then, we go back to our lives.

But for the families of the dead, their pain goes on and on. And every day, when the sun rises and the sun sets, their pain is still there. To me, that’s what the Memorial Trees symbolize; that although the young men the trees were planted for have been gone for over a century, the pain their families endured continued long after.

And so, it is very fitting that the residents of this community carry on this tradition in the names of the families who lived with this pain for so many years. And I think that if those families knew that their neighbors were carrying on that very personal tradition a century later, it would help ease their pain, even just a little bit.

A small group gathered this Monday in Forest Park and one by one, decorated the trees. At the back end of the trees, where the road is now closed to vehicular traffic, we paused for a moment of silence and played Taps.

We have no guarantees this tradition will continue deep into the future. We hope it will. We hope that future generations will learn of this and continue to honor the fallen and their families for many years to come.

But in the here and now, the best we can do is to remember and to pray; to pray that these families found some measure of comfort in their lives.

And together we pray that someday there will be no need for any new memorials. That would be the most fitting tribute of all, and it can be summed up in one word – Peace.

Plant a tree

Dear Editor,
Trees are a very vital part of our ecosystem. Their root systems retain soil, they take in CO2, and give off oxygen. They also reduce outside temperatures by several degrees in the summer, helping to cool our city streets.
More trees need to be planted across our country to help stem the tide of climate change. Plant a tree on your property, you will contribute to improving the ecosystem. We must do all we can to preserve life on our planet, and planting trees is one way to do that
Sincerely,
John Amato
Fresh Meadows

New trees in store for Forest Hills, Rego Park

The Parks Department is putting the “forest” in Forest Hills and the “park” in Rego Park with its plans to plant trees in both communities over the next year.
“Our goal is to continue expanding the city’s tree canopy as much as possible,” said spokesperson Charisse Hill. “Our fall 2021 planting projections for the Forest Hills and Rego Park communities are 128 trees, whereas our spring and fall 2022 planting projections for both communities total 425 trees.”
Stretches of Queens Boulevard, 66th Road, 102nd Street, and 67th Avenue are anticipated to have an estimated 16 to 19 additional trees by spring 2022.
Empty tree pits being reforested, while sidewalks are being excavated to accommodate new pits.
Extreme weather in recent years decimated the neighborhoods’ trees, which motivated residents to preserve mature trees and plant new ones, including the Forest Hills Tree Giveaway, which was held in MacDonald Park from 2011 to 2015.
“Young street trees are four times more likely to grow and thrive through tree stewardship, and community engagement can help ensure young street trees grow strong and healthy,” said Hill.
To volunteer to be a tree steward, visit nycgovparks.org/reg/stewardship.
Trees provide a home to wildlife, reduce stormwater runoff, filter and cool the air. Some older trees can feel like an unofficial landmark.
“As the steward of New York City’s urban forest, we take tree planting seriously,” said Hill “We recommend constituents who wish to help accelerate the planting process to pursue tree planting through New York Tree Time. The cost of planting a tree through this program is currently $1,800.”
To participate, email [email protected] or call (718) 361-8101.
A resident does not have to be a homeowner to play a role in the planting and maintenance of city trees. Residents can make note of empty tree pits, dead trees, or request pruning and planting by calling 311.
Over the years, the Parks Department has worked to diversify the street tree canopy.
“Species diversity is essential to maintaining a resilient, robust urban forest,” said Hill. “Planting a wider range of tree species helps combat pests and climate change. Our planting program now incorporates over 200 tree species in its street tree planting palette.”

A Woodhaven Memorial Day tradition lives on

One-hundred years ago, residents of Woodhaven were still reeling from the brutal one-two punch of the deadly 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and World War I. Out of all that loss and despair, an idea for a beautiful and unique tribute was born: the Memorial Trees of Forest Park.
Located at the top of Forest Parkway and running through the park, each tree was planted in the name of a soldier who left Woodhaven to fight overseas but never came home.
And every year on Memorial Day, friends and family of the fallen would gather in the park to decorate their trees.
We’ve written many times about how this tradition faded away over time, as well as how it came to be rediscovered and revived.
But because we are so far removed from the tradition itself, there are few details on the decorations themselves. Articles in the Leader-Observer 100 years ago mention ribbons and flags, so we’ve incorporated those into our decorations.
And they also mention notes the friends and families wrote to their loved ones, telling them the things they wish they could if they were still alive.
So whenever I’ve imagined former Woodhaven residents decorating the trees, I’ve always pictured a somber scene. Quiet, tearful, mournful.
That would better describe last year’s decorating of the trees in Forest Park when we were limited to four people due to COVID-19. The park was empty that morning. It was quiet. It was somber. Our voices echoed around the back stretch of trees and any passersby kept their distance.
But this year was a little different. And I wonder if, years ago, the decorating of the trees came to more closely resemble yesterday. I wonder if, over time, the decorating of the trees was part of the healing.
I would never compare the last year to what residents of Woodhaven went through 100 years ago, but I think the healing effects of the trees works just as well now as it did a century ago.
It was really good seeing a bunch of friendly faces again in person, not via a computer screen. It felt good to be together again, setting off to complete a job and seeing it all the way through.
To be honest, I really didn’t have to do much. I decorated the first tree as an example, and the group took it from there.
Instead, I was able to amble along and just enjoy everyone’s company. And as they moved from tree to tree, I was struck by the tone in conversation. It was quiet and respectful, but there was also a happy tone, people enjoying one another’s company once again.
As I walked along, I began thinking that if the tradition itself was far removed from us, the people we were honoring were not.
They lived in our houses. If they turned up alive in 2021, most of them would be able to bring you to the very homes they grew up in.
They went to the same schools and churches we go to. They rode the same elevated train we do, though it was just a few years old at the time.
They walked the same streets we do, and they would still recognize their old hometown.
And I think they would be touched to see that their loved ones were still remembered all these years later. I think they would recognize the people who decorated the trees this year as the same kinds of people that began the tradition a century before.
And that’s why this year’s decorating of the trees is one I will remember for the rest of my life. It felt wonderful to see these faces again and enjoy some healing time together in Forest Park.
It felt like the worst was behind us and we were moving forward, that everything was going to get better. It was a very good day.

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