Posts Tagged 'Brooklyn Botanic Garden'

Mammal Monday

Curling up on a roof on a cold winter day. For two days, this raccoon spent daylight hours up here on a neighboring roof. The gutter, and poor roof drainage, provided water from the recent snowfall. It disappeared just a few minutes before sunset the first day.  I thought it might be a goner, for canine distemper virus is still taking its toll.

The next day it was again in this corner for most of the day. That second afternoon, a Common Raven flew low over the raccoon. Scouting mission? Twilight Thursday, the raccoon walked towards the front of the house, where a tree presumably provides access to the street. No sighting since.

Brooklyn Botanic Axes Arborist

Two Monday’s ago, the management of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden cut down a quirky and beloved tree. Staff and community opposed the arborcide. The garden’s own staff didn’t think the gloriously stumpy “BBG Treehouse” needed to come down, so, like some capo di tutti capi, the institution got outside contractors to do the killing.

Then, on Monday the 30th, the BBG cut down the arborist who stood up for the tree! Alec Baxt, an eight-year Garden veteran, one third of the aborists on staff, was fired. I’ve never met Baxt, but from what I’ve read, read, and heard, he sounds like someone you’d want on your team.

Except, of course, he wasn’t “professional”: no, he spoke out, he protested. He was a good citizen, not just an employee. But that’s a surefire way to lose your job in this nasty neoliberal economy (even with a union; his union is appealing his summary dismissal). Whistleblowers in a non-profit? Welcome to 2018. The corporate mentality demands a cowed, submissive “family” of employees. No thinking, no criticism! They basically want serfs under them. Even in a botanical garden.

Democracy dies in darkness, they say, but it also dies at work, where we spend a good deal of our lives.

The Pharaoh at BBG is Scot (with one T) Medbury. He works for a board drawn from the ranks of our upper classes and, boy, we know how well they like workers. Some years ago, Board/Medbury got rid of the science staff and science mission in their effort to turn this grand old institution into what an anonymous insider calls a “posh park.” It’s more a wedding venue now than a botanical garden. The garden is on city land, by the way, and receives city funding. Medbury’s leadership betrayal of the garden’s civic mission, including ending a time-honored route to STEM careers for Brooklynites, was a real blow to the city, yet it went unnoticed by a Bloomberg administration busy making the city more accommodating to billionaires (…who sit on boards).

This president’s 2016 salary was reported as $291,210. I don’t know what the aborists and gardeners make, but you can be sure it’s rather less. The people who actually do the important work, as in so many other places, are undervalued, ignored, and belittled by cadres of vice presidents, senior vice presidents, and executive vice presidents, not to mention dictator-presidents (mostly men still, but now with corporate feminism women can be corporate ogres, too). You could prune a tangle of managerial deadwood from this organizational tree and nobody would notice.

Don’t get me wrong: the BBG does great things, but that’s because of the dedication and knowledge of its frightened and demoralized staff. And now, with Baxt’s firing, these workers know that the terrible swift sword of the HR department is always there to slice them down, like a hapless tree, in punishment.

Medbury, spare that tree!
Touch not a single sprout!
Everybody loved it:
Visitors, staff, especially kids
Who enveloped themselves in it.

Wait, what? Damn it,
You chopped it down!
And whoa! Now your vengeance
Takes a power saw to the staff.

(With apologizes to George Pope Morris.)

UPDATED: Andy Newman of the New York Times wrote about this. In case you find take overwrought, consider that this fine institution threw him, his photographer, and Baxt out of the garden…

BBG Treehouse Razed

It’s evil tidings Tuesday, evidently.

Yesterday, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden removed the last of a beloved London Plane tree. Most of the giant old tree had been cut down earlier. Left until yesterday was a viable, hollowed-out stump, continuously, gloriously sprouting at the top. It was known as “the treehouse,” a quirky landmark that quickly became beloved: kids called it a fairy house, and adult visitors were fascinated by it. It should have become an educational focus.

Instead, according to someone who was social media-ing as the tree, contractors removed it while staff were on break yesterday. Both staff members and community members opposed the removal. The garden’s brilliant horticulture department, however, doesn’t make the rules. The BBG’s President mysteriously claimed that the sprouts were a danger. Coppicing and pollarding, ancient tree management strategies, evidently weren’t an option for him. This is, by the way, the same President who dismantled the garden’s science department in 2013.

I wrote about this at the time. Scientists renowned in the field were terminated; New York City lost some great educators. The herbarium was about to be shipped out of state, until another institution jumped in at the last minute to keep this vital local resource local. The New York Metropolitan Flora Project was terminated … though the BBG’s web page claims scientists are still working on it!

I also wrote on the occasion of the subsequent transformation of the garden’s mission statement into marketing blather. Getting rid of science and scientists went against the garden’s mission, so they simply changed the mission. (Orwell died before such non-profiteers became a thing.)

We often assume non-profit institutions are free from the corruptions that beset… institutions. But when staff are too intimidated to speak out in public, you know something is profoundly wrong.

There’s an awful lot of ugliness under the veneer of the sanctified appellation “non-profit.” The way this big-institution philanthropy thing works is that boards of directors made up of the wealthy, who get tax breaks at the expense of the rest of us, hire Presidents whose job is to fawn over the board. It’s institutional incest: they protect each other (see also: WNYC, AMNH). It’s no aside to note that the rich folk on these big institution boards are also often supporters of Republicans assaulting democracy and the environment.

Meanwhile, legions of unnecessary VPs combine in a front against the employees, those with all the actual botanical and horticultural knowhow, and the community. (Let’s not forget that in the BBG’s case, the city, that is, us, are also funders via our tax dollars.) Sadly, the vicious social relations of management lording it over employees are replicated everywhere.

Vigilance Against Poachers

Yesterday, some bird poachers were interrupted in Prospect Park by Park Rangers and park staff. Earlier, one of the poachers actually walked through a group of birders with a caged American Goldfinch in one hand and a glue stick (used to trap birds, a variation on bird lime; very nasty stuff) in the other.

It’s illegal to kill, capture, trade, etc. migratory birds and bird parts, including feathers, nests, and eggs.

Also recently: several people were caught wet-handed stealing turtles from the park. Meanwhile, over in the BBG Wedding Venue, a patch of ramps, no easy thing to propagate, was raided. Ironically, the BBG has posted on foraging for ramps, when what they should have done is say onions and leeks and scallions are more than good enough for all you cooking needs.

What unites all these thefts from the natural commonwealth? Money, of course! One of the bird catchers evidently admitted he was paid to capture the bird for the other. The turtles were probably headed for the market. I know of five people whose “business model” is actually teaching people to forage in the city.

If you see such destructive greediness in the wild commons, call the Park Rangers 718-421-2021; Park Enforcement Patrol (less effective): 718-437-1350; and/or 311. Here are the numbers for NY state DEC’s Environmental Conservation Officers. If you’re elsewhere, put the local authorities on your phone.

Meanwhile, in the Wedding Venue Garden

In the last week, two employees of what many are still calling, for sentimental reasons, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, confided in me about the low level of morale there since the purge of its research program in August. In September, the Garden’s Board of Trustees approved a new mission statement; the old one had proved inconvenient in the face of being violated by the Garden’s leadership. From a resounding statement of mission uniting horticultural display, research, education, and community-building to bland marketing puffery. Like most branding statements, unsurprisingly, this one is bullshit, since there is no “research focused on understanding and conserving regional plants and plant communities” going on there: they fired everybody doing that in August, after years of whittling the research staff down to the bone. The Garden’s PR crew seems to have done little to nothing about publicizing this new brand statement, a rather telling point.

So, the state of the BBG: employees fear for their jobs and are powerless against the administration; the Board of Trustees, a club for funders and their scions, sip their cocktails as they provide no oversight at all; the Garden’s Facebook page allows no dissent (I’m one of the critics who have been blocked). The President has manifested no understanding of science, research, history, or the importance of the Herbarium and the research library.

Clearly, nothing is sacred, or special, or worthy, there now. Since the old mission statement only exists in our memory, I want to quote in full the Garden’s webpage on its Rare Book Room for posterity, while it still exists:

“Charles Stuart Gager, the first Director of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, was a man of extraordinary vision, a distinguished botanist, and a bibliophile. For Gager, assembling a great botanical library to support the historical and scientific study of plants was an integral part of building a great botanical garden. Through special endowments and generous gifts, Gager and those who followed built a collection of significant botanical and horticultual works that has few rivals. The non-circulating rare book collection, comprising some 1500 volumes from the 15th century through the 20th century, is particularly strong in: Early European herbals, including those by Brunfels, Dodoens, Fuchs, and Mattioli; The great color-plate books, including those by Blackwell, Miller, Loudon, Hooker, and Redouté; Landmark works by Linnaeus, including correspondence, Hortus Cliffortianus, and Species Plantarum; New World floras by early travelers in the Americas, like Bartram, Catesby, and Michaux.”

“A man of extraordinary vision, a distinguished botanist, and a bibliophile.” The likes of founding director C.S. Gager would be laid-off there today, to make way for another VP of Marketing. It is so terribly sad to watch a great institution being gutted from within.

My previous posts about the BBG’s radical transformation into a flowery wedding venue:
Whose Botanic Garden?
The BBG Purge, as news of the summary summer firings of the research staff broke.

Flatbush Gardener, long a supporter of the BBG with his time and money, explains why he has ended his support. His post includes links to several must-reads.

A petition is circulating to restore science (even the word has been stripped now from its branding statement) to the BBG. If you haven’t already signed, please do so and help to publicize it.

Petition to Restore Science at the BBG

A petition has been launched by Chris Kruessling, the Flatbush Gardener, addressing the Board of Directors of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in an effort to restore the science and research mission at that institution. If you care about science, botany, Brooklyn, transparency, and a venerable institution gone astray, please sign.

Chris has been reporting on the dismantling of the BBG’s science and research mission. And here’s my take.

Whose Botanic Garden?

The NY State Legislature reserved 39 acres for a botanical garden in Brooklyn in 1897, on land that had originally been part of the proposed site of Prospect Park. The triangle northwest of Flatbush Avenue became instead Institute Park, home to the Brooklyn Museum, Mount Prospect Park, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The Botanic Garden — the shorter “botanic” was just as serviceable as “botanical” — was founded in 1910 and opened in 1911; the Laboratory Building and Conservatory was dedicated in 1917. Today, that building is known simply as the Administrative Building.

Administratively, the BBG is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation sitting on land partially owned by the City of New York. As one of the Cultural Institutions Group, the Garden’s operation is made possible by funding from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, receiving

“significant capital and operating support from the City to help meet basic security, maintenance, administration and energy costs. In return for this support, these institutions operate as publicly-owned facilities whose mandate is to provide cultural services accessible to all New Yorkers.”

In addition, the Brooklyn delegations in City Council, State Assembly, and State Senate all do their bit to support the Garden, channelling our tax dollars there. The State of New York itself is further represented in the BBG’s list of supporters by the New York State Biodiversity Research Institute, New York State Council on the Arts, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. On the federal level, the National Endowment for the Arts, National Science Foundation, and Environmental Protection Agency also contribute.

In summary, public funds, our money, from all these channels, are a considerable part of the operation of the garden. The Garden is a quasi-public entity, intimately tied to the city and its people, and, of course, close to the hearts most specifically of Brooklynites. (True, the forces of privatization that have ripped the country to pieces are very much at work here, too.) And as such, it can not be an organization that is free to do what it wills all the time. Not with our money, and certainly not when it undermines its own mission.

The second statement of the BBG’s Mission Statement — the things, essentially, we are all buying with our monies — is here quoted in full: “Engaging in research in plant sciences to expand human knowledge of plants, and disseminating the results to science professionals and the general public.” The third (“Teaching…”), forth (“Reaching out…”), and fifth and final parts (“Seeking to actively arouse public awareness…”) of the Mission Statement all very much stem from this fundamental research aspect. Internally, the mission has been traditionally thought of as a three-legged stool: horticulture, research, education. Without research, the garden is just a pretty park, and the education is warmed over, an elementary level. (Updated: the BBG changed it mission statement on 9/28/13 to the blandness now found at this link. I’ve pasted the old and new statements in the comments.)

Two weeks ago, the wrong kind of history was made when the research component of the BBG’s Mission was ended when the science department was obliterated. Three full-time staffers, representing something like 60 years of experience at BBG, were laid off; in one case by phone, another by e-mail, while they were on vacation. (The coldness of these firings shocked the staff and outside observers; an email to all staff explaining them afterwards only mentioned these long-term employees’ titles, not their names; but their photos were briefly posted at the Garden entrances so Security could block them from re-entering, before Garden staff protested.)

The Garden’s marketeers have shamelessly tried to spin things differently — and when I use the word “shamelessly,” I mean to signal my disgust with a non-profit engaging in the marketing and PR gambits of bullshitting inhuman corporate entities: one of the disingenuous spins about the research department (that it was only cut “by 50%”) is that the head of research is still at the Garden; but she’s only there on paper, since she just started a National Science Foundation fellowship in Washington DC. Sources at the Garden I’ve talked to suggest there’s no reason for her to return to the BBG once her grant runs out. Meanwhile, without paying her, the Garden claims her as their own.

Funding issues and physical plant problems were the reason given for the firings and other personnel shifts (piling more on people with full plates already). This during a time of a centennial capital campaign, big expansions, and such dubious expenses as $120,000 to move a single unremarkable ginkgo tree during the construction of the new entrance. That new entrance has quickly become something of a boondoogle, btw, with its awkward internal space echoing with emptiness much of the time. Both the funding and physical plant factors — a subsiding building that has been an issue for a DECADE, and still far from uninhabitable — can only be called aspects of mismanagement for which the thick layer of administrators, not the researchers, should be held accountable. It was mind-boggling to hear the roll call of Vice Presidents at the Garden (but NOT one for Science or Research anymore; this was cut after President Scot Medbury took over), all no doubt with their Masters in CYA. Medbury has an eight year record now of no interest in research or science; there’s no revenue stream in that game, not like weddings. Before Medbury arrived, there were 8 Ph.D.s in the science department. Now there’s no science department. That’s his destructive legacy, undermining a century of BBG heritage.

The Garden’s PR minions says the science/research mission is “suspended” and on “hiatus,” — tell that to the veteran staffers, in their late 50s, who were suddenly terminated on a Wednesday — and that it is to be “reimagined” — bullshit management-speak signifying little to those of us who treasure the English language.

Local academics have begun to raise the alarm about the loss of work and resources at the BBG. The state-wide invasive species mapping program has been dealt a blow by the BBG’s actions. The forth person fired in the Garden’s purge was the head of GreenBridge, a venerable community greening outreach program; her firing was a real “fuck you” to those many Brooklynites who don’t have the bucks to go to the fancy dress galas. An effort at Medgar Evers College to bring up a more racially inclusive generation of botanists has been left without a science partner at BBG. The New York Metropolitan Floral Project (NYMF), a comprehensive project to study the vascular plants of of the region, is now frozen. So, yes, the local actions of this organization have spread out into Brooklyn and beyond, like a poisonous weed.

The BBG also of course depends on private monies. And over the years, many people have given precisely because of the Garden’s stated scientific and research mission. Have they been cheated or deceived? Should they demand their money back? Individuals and institutions like Hobart and William Smith College — read the Garden’s press release about this and note the picture: none of those individuals work there anymore — have given the BBG their herbariums for safekeeping, preservation, and wider access. The 300,000-item strong herbarium is mothballed now, a slap in the face to those people and entities. As has been noted, it’s like a museum putting away the paintings you gave them on the assumption that they would be displayed. But you can see them on the computer, they will say, with stunning lack of knowledge about what the actual specimen tells us. The herbarium’s origins are older than the Garden itself as an institution; it is a treasury of 19th century Brooklyn flora. And it should be considered as being held in trust by the Garden for this and future generations, not a plaything of the budget and administrators who follow the lead of the nation’s worst in an appalling ignorance and denigration of science.

As a citizen of Brooklyn, I don’t believe the BBG’s abandonment of science should stand. The people in charge in the Garden clearly shouldn’t be, since they so plainly don’t understand the very mission of the place. The Board of Trustees, if it’s to be anything other than a check-writing passel of socialites partying under the magnolias, needs to fulfill their trusteeship and bring the administration to account. Kate Levin, the head of the Department of Cultural Affairs, must rescue the Garden from its destructive mismanagement.

Sign the petition to restore science/research to the BBG.

UPDATE: I’ve written on this issue since this post.

BBG Purge

This is what I know, having heard it through the Vitis vine: on Wednesday at 7pm, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden fired six members of its science department, wiping the department out. By e-mail. What a classy move! The Metropolitan Flora project has been suspended. The head of the community-building GreenBridge was axed. The herbarium has been put into storage. This is a body blow to all efforts to green the city, deleting both research and resources vital to us all.

Coincidently, or not, the department was located across the street from the garden itself, and now the BBG doesn’t have to worry about moving a whole department should they want to sell the real estate to the developer of an apartment building.

Naturally, finances are being blamed for the department’s termination. The elaborate new entrance way to the Garden couldn’t have turned out to be a boondoogle, could it? Why is it that employees always pay for management’s fuck ups? Also, what’s all this about City Council money given to BBG with stipulations that there be no-lay-offs there. True?

Another legacy of the Bloomberg Plutocracy has been the steady corruption of non-profits into acting like for-profits, with all the nasty ruthlessness that presumes. Starving nonprofits of public funds means not only must they scramble even more for private funding, but they must follow the nation-wrecking dictates of the Market über alles, breaking unions, screwing retirees, and yoking themselves to the ruling elites for crumbs. The situation is analogous to the public sector, as in Prospect Park, where plutocrats get to decree what their money will buy, as with Central Park Conservancy’s enormous wealth while parks in the Bronx shrivel, as in the hotel/condos (the “Flood Plain Estates”) being built in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

DNAinfo has more details.

Flatbush Gardener’s take.

Flying Now

Pholisora catullusThe Common Sootywing (Pholisora catullus). A tiny — wingspan is less than an inch — fluttery butterfly, that looks black from a distance, but up close is revealed to be a rich brown.

The Future

NFG1The Native Flora Garden is expanding at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Most of the one-acre extension, which effectively doubles the size of the NFG, can be seen here from a distance. The new space will include pine barrens and coastal plain habitats.nfg2Here’s a peek through the fencing of the pine barrens habitat to come. Pitch pine, scrub oak, red maple, black gum, pitcher plant, leatherleaf, and other plants, including:nfg3


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