2015 could be an auspicious year for urban forestry, and so far it’s off to a great start. On January 19, Urban Releaf teamed with service organizations, community organizers, and hundreds of volunteers to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Our contribution to the national MLK Day of Service was a beautification effort in one of the city’s most environmentally-polluted and blighted neighborhoods, G Street in East Oakland.

Before the Urban Releaf trucks arrived, there were already more than 100 people at the site: Americorps, PG&E, Girl Scouts, BBOCD7 and BAYAC volunteers, nearby neighbors from performance art space NIMBY, and more volunteers, including some who had come all the way from Marin.

The crews wasted no time in getting to work bagging trash and debris. And, boy, was there a lot of trash to be bagged.

Several of the bags were piled up next to cans of paint which had been left out on the street, perilously close to a storm drain. The strong odor from the paint reeked of toxicity, hinting at the high hazardous waste levels the neighborhood has recorded on Enviroscreen – in the 91st percentile in that category, as well as the 93rd percentile for cleanup sites, the 88th percentile for groundwater threats, and the 84th percentile for diesel.

Once the trees arrived and were dropped off in the planting zones, volunteers picked up shovels and surrounded the trees, which had been spaced strategically, so as to discourage dumping as they grow. With so many available hands, short work of the proceedings was made, even against pick- and shovel-resistant dirt.

On hand to witness the tree-planting was Cindy Blain, Executive Director of California Releaf—Urban Releaf’s very first funder, some 18-odd years ago—as well as a representative of the Hon. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland)’s office, who presented Urban Releaf ED Kemba Shakur with a proclamation honoring her decades of community service.

Blain, who drove all the way from Cal Releaf’s Sacramento office, seemed pleased to see Urban Releaf in action, doing what we do best: plant trees. She explained that she’s stuck behind a desk too often, and is looking forward to getting her “boots on the ground” with the California Releaf Network’s 93 member organizations throughout the state.

Blain was also excited to talk about the state’s new mandates for environmental justice—which has expanded the pool of available monies for urban forestry projects throughout California—and to see mitigation at work in an EJ community first-hand.

The event drew other visitors as well. Later in the day, newly-minted Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf dropped by, with several members of her campaign staff. Schaaf must have been encouraged by the low-key, welcoming reception she received, which was considerably more positive than the protestors who started out her MLK Day by waking her up in her Montclair home at 5 AM. During breaks in the tree-planting process, several Urban Releaf staffers discussed environmental policy with Schaaf’s former campaign manager and current senior advisor Peggy Moore.

The Releafers brought Moore up to speed on recent statewide developments, such as the implementation of the Enviroscreen pollution-mapping tool, which helps to provide metrics for assessing EJ communities such as G Street, measuring both pollution burden and population characteristics. It was explained to Moore that the state’s shift in methodology towards an environmental justice framework for disadvantaged communities—which places a high priority on urban forestry—could be favorable to Oakland, which has 25 census tracts above the 75th percentile threshold needed to qualify for mitigation funds from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.

Another friend who dropped by was Dana King, the former television news anchor-turned Oakland City Council candidate. King, who was just appointed to the Public Ethics Commission, brought celebrity status to the proceedings—and the work ethic of a farmer. Channeling her small-town Michigan roots, King wasted no time in getting down and dirty, hefting  a pick like a seasoned agriculturalist.

After such an auspicious start, the planting continued for well over three hours. On this occasion, 18 trees were added to the dozens which Urban Releaf and BBOCD7 had already planted, on earlier visits. After holes were dug and the trees lowered into the holes, the trees were staked and tied, and then watered. For added aesthetic consideration, small flowers and shrubs were placed next to several of the trees.

The entire effort was monumental and well-orchestrated; this planting had to be one of the most successful and well-attended events Urban Releaf has ever been a part of. As BBOCD7 organizer Mary Forte notes, this year’s MLK event drew approximately 200 people, more than double the last year’s turnout.

All told, around 90 bags of trash and litter were collected; 10 bags of weeds and grass were removed from the A&B Towing wall and replaced with decomposed concrete. Moreover, Forte added, there were plenty of snacks, juice, and water for such a large contingent of volunteers. Most important of all, she said, the beautification efforts were enthusiastically enjoined by large numbers of young people and children.

The Day of Service event was not only transformative in and of itself, but part of a larger transformation which has been occurring on this strip of East Oakland certified an environmental hotspot by the state. Combined with BBOCD7’s ongoing efforts, five months of attentive care by Urban Releaf have begun to make a difference along G Street, both aesthetically and environmentally. Once-solitary trees now have neighboring vegetation. The streets themselves looked like they had gotten an extreme makeover. Removed of a considerable amount of clutter and debris, they were noticeably more hospitable.

All the problems of this neighborhood won’t be solved in a day. But after a day like this, it’s a little less easy to say no one cares about G Street.

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