Every year around the middle of October a bunch of volunteers run around Union Square Park with spades and trowels and plant ten thousand tulip and daffodil bulbs for the following spring. Plant the Park!, as it's called, is organized by the Union Square Community Coalition
This year attracted only thirty-two volunteers (down from ninety in 2004) mainly, explains Suzanne Sheppard, a coordinator and chief flyer-distributor, because people didn’t think it would ever stop raining and so didn’t realize that bulb-planting would ever happen.
The bulbs will bloom in April—purple, yellow, red, and pink tulips and hosts of golden daffodils—and I can attest to how welcome they are after a long, dreary winter. Anyway, Suzanne Sheppard has been doing this kind of volunteering for a number of years, and even though she’s only just moved within the five boroughs (she lives in Queens), she’s been coming to the City (as she calls Manhattan) for sixteen years and loves it.
“Green is important in the city,” she says. “I grew up in the suburbs and I miss being able to sit on the grass and enjoy nature. So a park is good.” She loves the fact that New York City is open twenty-four hours a day. “I’m an up-early-to-bed-late person. There’s always something to do; so much culture.” Even though New York is expensive, she couldn’t live anywhere else. “I tried Chicago. But it didn’t work.” She finds New York more dangerous than it was when she first started coming here in the late 1970s (an interesting view given the prevailing wisdom is that New York is safer now than it was then), but she’s not moving. “I love the cultural mix,” she enthuses. “I learn a lot from many different people, different cultures, different foods.”
A couple of guys come up to ask her how much she’s selling the pizza for. She tells them it is for the volunteers who are planting in the park and they look at her as though she’s crazy. She gives me a smile. “I like New Yorkers. I think they’re friendly. They talk to you. People buy you coffee. It’s great.” And Union Square Park itself? “It’s convenient: right off the train from the house. It brings people together.”
A man with two small girls walks up to claim his free T-shirts, which dwarf the two girls. “You can use it as a nightshirt,” says Suzanne to one proud young planter. What could America learn from New York City? I ask her. “A sense of pride,” she replies without hesitation. “We’re all proud to be New Yorkers, no matter what other people say. New Yorkers are on the cutting edge of anything, leading from the front.” And she hands me a flyer.