Volume 17 • Issue 17 | SEPTEMBER 17 - 23, 2004

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

A Wah Mei bird owner in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park. Owners say the leaf blowers have been frightening the songbirds.

Songbird owners feeling blown away in S.D.R. Park

By Ronda Kaysen

The Wah Mei songbirds of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, chirping away in their brown wooden cages, have some serious competition: gas powered leaf blowers.

A longtime staple of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, the tiny, brightly colored birds appear most mornings to sing to each other while their owners — generally older Chinese men — chat or read various Chinese newspapers on nearby park benches. But Department of Parks and Recreation employees — blowing leaves and trash with their high-powered blowers — have interrupted the birds’ signature call and gotten their owners’ feathers in quite a ruffle.

Downtown Express caught up with the Wah Mei birds one recent morning. They were chirping among themselves south of Delancey St. between Forsyth and Chrystie Sts., enjoying the warm morning sun as much as anyone. Their owners, however, were anything but cheerful.

“[The leaf blowers] are here every morning, even on Sundays,” said Roger Wong, a regular park visitor and owner of a dull-colored female Wah Mei. When asked how he deals with the Parks Department employees, Wong shrugged his shoulders. “We cover up the birds and let them blow,” he said. Wong’s 1-year-old bird, larger than her colorful male neighbors, perched in her cage and tweeted.

On a few occasions, Wong said, other bird owners had approached the park management to complain about the persistent noise. Their requests went unanswered, he said. “They just keep going on like that,” he said. The leaf blowers spend up to an hour cleaning the area, according to Wong.

The raucous din disturbs more than the singing birds. “I have been suffering here in this vortex of evil in an ongoing saga,” said Anna Magenta, a longtime Forsythe St. resident and S.D.R. Park gardener. “It’s so traumatic that I think you don’t recover from it.”

Although the leaf blower sounds loud in the areas where the birds and owners congregate, the noise was hard to hear over traffic in other parts of the park.

Magenta recently purchased a Radio Shack noise meter and measured the noise at 75 decibels. Fifty decibels is the city limit for noise pollution. Following a call to the mayor’s office, Magenta’s meter now reads the noise level at 50 decibels. “It’s considerably lower now,” she said.

Noise or not, the parks must be cleaned and S.D.R. Park, spanning a busy swath of Forsyth and Chrystie Sts. from Houston to Canal Sts. on the boundaries of Chinatown, is subject to the loud horns of barreling cars and trucks and frequent construction along its perimeters.

Wilfredo Malve, who was raking leaves south of the soccer field at Forsyth and Grand St. on Monday morning, sees his leaf blower as a necessary tool. “Sometimes the people complain,” he said, dressed in a green Department of Parks and Recreation T-shirt and matching baseball cap. “But we have to use it [the leaf blower.] There’s a lot of garbage.”

Malve has been working for the Parks Department for two years as part of the city’s Work Experience Program, which makes people work for their welfare benefits with a goal toward full employment. Malve said he uses the leaf blower a few times a week, but would use it more often if the device were easier to manage. “It’s really hard to get it going,” he said. “You’ve got to pull this string a bunch of times. It’s really difficult.” He shook his head and glanced across the park at the dormant blower.

Malve’s boss, Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro, agrees the blowers are the most effective way to clean a city park. “We’d rather not use the blowers, but it allows us to clean a park not only more quickly, but more thoroughly,” he said. “It really allows you to get the dirt up and it really allows for a much cleaner park.” All of the city’s parks are cleaned with the help of the blowers, said Castro.

When Malve does use the blower — which he says cuts down his work time considerably — he does not wear his protective earmuffs so he can hear the calls of disgruntled park visitors. “If someone’s yelling at me, saying, ‘Yo! It’s blowing in my eyes!’ I can’t hear them [with the earmuffs on.]”

Magenta suggested cleaning the parks after the songbirds have had their fill. “All they have to do is come after the activities are done,” Magenta suggested. “Come at noon.” Currently, the parks are cleaned daily between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The morning — to the dismay of the Wah Mei birds — is the least disruptive time of the day, said Castro. “You have to clean in the morning,” he said. “You don’t want to clean when people are there. You can empty trash cans and other things, but if you’re going to sweep up a park, you try to do it before the people arrive.” Most people arrive, he said, in the afternoon and evening.

Castro said he was unaware of the Wah Mei owners’ concerns, but planned to address the issue. “It’s a problem and I’m very sympathetic to their concerns,” he said. “We’ll try and see how we can minimize this for them.” Whatever changes are made, the blowers will not be eliminated entirely, he said.

With the Wah Mei birds chirping a block to the north, Malve had charged up his blower, a cloud of trash and leaves billowing around him. When Downtown Express skirted past, he moved his blower aside, clearing a path.


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