Our Project’s History

Newtown Pippins. Photo by Foodista.

Newtown Pippins. Photo by Foodista.

The way Green Apple Cleaners, Green Thumb, Slow Food NYC, and Cummins Nursery gathered around the Newtown Pippin tree was, if you’ll forgive us, organic.

Journalist Erik Baard has long been a volunteer for urban ecology, most notably as founder of the LIC Community Boathouse, which provides free kayaking and canoeing on the East River and Newtown Creek. Through that volunteerism he became active in the Newtown Creek Alliance, a western Brooklyn and Queens neighborhood coalition to cleanup that polluted waterway. While writing a series about East River branches and tributeries for the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, he stumbled across an article about the Newtown Pippin by Peter Hatch, director of gardens and grounds at Monticello. Erik was astonished. A NYC apple, sprouting from the banks of the now blighted creek, that was a delicious favorite of the Founding Fathers! What a reminder of the lushness our estuary archipelago once boasted. How had we, as a city, forgotten about this beautiful legacy?

Through his Nature Calendar blog, he championed the fruit. And he found a ready ally in David Kistner, founder and CEO of Green Apple Cleaners, the city’s only garment cleaner exclusively using the two technologies (captured waste CO2 dry cleaning and high technology wet cleaning) that the EPA described as “clearly demonstrated to be environmentally-preferable.”  David came to environmentalism from an earlier career as a pilot and consultant to the airline industry through his wife’s pregnancy with twins. He was awoken to the environmental toxins that could affect his unborn sons’ health. That commitment was compounded soon after by his own battle with cancer.

The two had met and become friends through Green Drinks NYC years ago, and Erik agreed to ride the company’s tricycle rickshaw part time on a lark. With the friendship deepening, Erik brought the Newtown Pippin idea to David’s attention. With a company called Green Apple Cleaners, how could he refuse sponsoring the return of NYC’s heritage green apple?

As Erik rooted around for Newtown Pippin growers who might provide saplings to metropolitan schools and gardens, he was informed by Greenmarket Director Michael Hurwitz of the Council on the Environment of NYC that Slow Food NYC had earlier accomplished vital groundwork. Slow Food NYC is the local organizer of a 20-year old movement, begun in Italy, dedicated to delicious local foods that are “good, clean and fair.” In other words, humanely produced, environmentally sustainable, affordable, and for which producers are paid a fair wage. Biodiversity in agriculture is also a key component of the organization’s work. Monocultures are vulnerable to a rapid spread of disease and so often rely on environmentally destructive practices to protect them. Toward those ends, Slow Food NYC brought Newtown Pippin scion wood from Virginia to regional orchards and inspired a proclamation from Mayor Bloomberg that this was our “most historic” apple.

Ed Yowell, a member of the Slow Food NYC Leadership Committee and the Slow Food NY/NJ Regional Governor, was thrilled to have partners working  to bring Newtown Pippin trees to neighborhoods, in addition to apples to market!

He quickly brought to bear his deeper knowledge of the fruit and local orchards, which he learned directly from farmers and horticulturalists. The orchard that Green Apple Cleaners had contacted, Cummins Nursery, was a recipient of scion wood from Slow Food NYC. Ed became the chief sounding board for all aspects of sapling selection, to ensure that some rootstock would be full sized and that all would have proper pedigree.

Continuing on the City Hall front, David and Erik brought Newtown Pippin apples, along with a jam made from indigenous Beach Plums, to the Mayor’s Office on Sustainability and Long-term Planning. The tasting meeting, which included director Rohit Aggarwala, was a hit. More tastings, and more raves, at the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance holiday party followed. To build an even broader base of support, David and Erik made gift boxes at Green Apple Cleaners’ headquarters for 40 cultural leaders. Sage American Kitchen made 40 hail-pocked little end-of-season apples into amazing tarts to include in the boxes. The response was amazing – Councilman James Gennaro jumped to help by offering to submit a resolution designating the Newtown Pippin as New York City’s official apple. He got down to plant them too, as kids got to see at King Manor Museum.

Growing fruit trees in New York City poses entirely different challenges than on bucolic farms in upstate New York or rural Virginia. Deer and arboreal diseases are less of a threat in asphalt isolation. But an urban apple tree must be protected from dog urine, snow melt salts, soil compression through vibration, and other dangers. And more than that, a tree must have skilled and dedicated caretakers. The Newtown Pippin could ask for no better brain trust to help guide its reintroduction than the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation ‘s Green Thumb community garden program. Deputy Director Helen Ho, a friend of the LIC Community Boathouse since its inception, joined the effort with both encouragement and critical questions.

As this quest grew, the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation stepped in heroically again. MillionTreesNYC, which recognizes our work as helping to complete the city’s ambition of planting one million trees, connected us with the Parks resources to leap from 10 apple trees in 2009 to over 100! Cristiana Fragola, who directs the Parks portion of the program, introduced Erik to Erin Roche of the street trees section. She in turn brought the Newtown Pippin Restoration and Celebration to the attention of Greenbelt Native Plant Center nursery manager Timothy Chambers. His commitment to care for the apples over the summer, ahead of September plantings, is what’s making it possible to include so many new sites!

Jennifer Manley, Queens director for the Community Affair Unit of the Mayor’s Office and Ed Hancox, an astute blogger on international affairs, have both generously delivered saplings to locations in four of the five boroughs on their own time.

Many friends have encouraged this effort, from foodies and gardeners to city officials. And now it’s your chance to participate!

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3 responses to “Our Project’s History

  1. Marjorie Melikian

    The 357 year old First Presbyterian Church of Newtown, in present day Elmhurst, planted two Newtown Pippins in 2002 on our 350th anniversary. This was mentioned in articles in the April 7, 2002 NY Daily News, April 10 Times Newsweekly, and May-June publication of the Newtown Civic Association. I am delighted the idea has caught on!
    I am the historian of the church, and suggested bringing Newtown Pippins back to Newtown for the anniversary. In fact the original tree grew only a few blocks away, on the property of Gershom Moore, son or grandson of our first pastor Rev. John Moore. The original tree died about 1805 as a result of excessive cutting of saplings.
    With the success of the Newtown Pippin other orchards sprang up. But sorry, the first tree wasn’t on the banks of Newtown Creek, nor was it named for the creek. It was named for Newtown village where it grew, one of the first 3 villages in Queens, originally consisting of all of NW Queens, with its town center until 1898 near present Broadway and Queens Blvd, Elmhurst. The Creek was named for the village, called (the) New Town after additional land was added when the English took over from the Dutch, who had called the area Middleburg .
    See James Riker’s 1852 classic book
    “Annals of Newtown” for more information on early Newtown’s fascinating history.
    Good luck in your project!!

    • naturecalendar

      Hi! I told the Daily News reporter to include the church’s trees, and I’ve been to visit them. We’re also happy to donate a pollinator heirloom apple tree as two of the same kind won’t be fertile. Of course the creek, like the apple, was named for the town. The creek used to extend much further north and east, but has been truncated by landfill. Marshes extended even further. No one supposes the apple trees grew out of the muddy slopes of the creek banks themselves, but it certainly in the watershed and close to the creek proper. The Moore holdings were vast, so I haven’t pinpointed exactly where the orchard was. The NYC Parks playground property on Broadway was also part of the parcel. As for the tree, I read that but take comfort from the fact that it would be dead by now anyway! We owe the Virginians a debt for keeping our heritage alive, even if they did scrub the name from our apple! Thanks for writing and planting!

  2. Bob Singleton

    You forgot to mention Marjorie that the Presbyterian Church in Elmhurst (on Queens Blvd) is located at a former 18th century orchard where the apple trees almost certainly grew.

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