How the Charles Street Block Association got started

By George Capsis

Sometime around the spring of 1971 I became aware of a program that the City was offering, which was that if you paid for a tree the City would plant it right in front of your building for free. Wow, that was, at that time, a very generous and irresistible offer—especially for me, a newly mortgaged, impoverished home owner.

Charles Street, except for a small patch between 7th Avenue and West 4th Street, was barren all the way from Greenwich Avenue to the West Side Highway—not one tree, not one patch of flowering plants, just a random collection of sidewalks from the gray slate of the 1860s to the cracked concert of later eras.

But, oh, oh my, planting just one tree to grow all alone seemed somehow wrong. So, I found myself talking to my next-door neighbor, John McAlister, over the rear garden fence, asking him, “What do you think about starting a block association and getting all the homeowners to plant a tree?” With John’s quick “Yes” the Charles Street Block association was started.

Block associations were new then and the question was, “What do they do besides planting trees?” I don’t think that question ever got answered; there was even an article once entitled “After the Trees What?”

Well, there was something we had to do and that was to raise money to buy the trees. So, we had block fairs which were rustic and quaint (we had one guy who became famous for offering turtle races).

We even had political tussling between a hard-nosed lawyer and big shot consultant over becoming president (and petty embezzlement when buying the plants) in what was, and maybe still is, the rattling of egos.

But block associations can and should do good things because the block is the extension of our apartments—mentally, we carry the graffiti on the lamp post into our living rooms.

So, if you think we should select better plants, if you think we should remove ad stickers, if you think a lecture on the history of Charles Street would be fun, then you ought to join the block association and speak…

Oh, if I remember correctly, we now have over 120 trees!


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