The Corner

State of the Christmas Trees

Mayor Bloomberg gave a perfectly serviceable “State of the City” address today. He laid out what he considers to be an ambitious strategy for pension reform, and rightly took credit for accomplishments during his nine years in office, including having cut homicide and fire deaths to low levels. 

But the speech was a disconnect from what is out on the street. What is out on the street is . . . Christmas trees. Parts of Manhattan look like a somewhat bedraggled evergreen forest.

All New Yorkers start out the Christmas season optimistically festooning their trees with the ornaments that, during the non-Christmas months, took up half the apartment in storage boxes. 

But as they do so, New Yorkers know, too, that the dark day is coming when Christmas and New Year’s will be over. They will have to lug their dry tree down their building hallway and into the elevator to deposit it on the sidewalk while pretending not to be responsible for the trail of pine needles that collects along the way.

All good New Yorkers know, too, not to be late in this chore. There’s a deadline for Christmas-tree collection — and nobody wants to miss it. Green New Yorkers justify having bought a real tree with the knowledge that the city will recycle the trees, making them into mulch for our parks. If one misses the recycling deadline, though, one faces the shameful private realization that one’s tree will instead decay over eternity in a landfill.

So as New Yorkers enjoy their trees and as Christmas turns into New Year, New Yorkers look, too, at the Department of Sanitation website, to make sure that they know the drop-dead date for lugging that tree outside.

That deadline, this year, was January 14. In practice, most people put their trees out a week before that, and Sanitation usually conducts rolling collections so that the trees don’t pile up.

This year, though, the trees have sat there for weeks, inviting more trees, as people who were late with the deadline have realized that, hey, Sanitation hadn’t collected the trees, so they had more time (tree moral hazard?). And according to Sanitation officialdom, the city is done; the last collection day was January 15, the day after the deadline.

So now New Yorkers must wonder what will happen to all of these orphan trees. 

People outside New York may not realize that the trees are a barometer of something amiss. Citizens know that they followed the rules, and that the city was supposed to have picked up the trees. They know, too, that the huge snowstorm was nearly a month ago — meaning that it should not be an excuse.

Yet the trees remain, collecting bits of tissue and trash in the cold. New Yorkers are now thinking as they walk past each small, forlorn pile, “Mr. Mayor, if you’re going to leave trees on the sidewalk, at least bring us fresh trees.”

More important, people are thinking: Does this mean something? Why hasn’t Bloomberg picked up the trees? Why hasn’t anyone said anything about it? What else is going undone, unnoticed, sliding into chaos? Call it the pine-scent version of broken-windows policing. 

The trees point up a real challenge for third-term Bloomberg. People fear that the mayor, as he tries to solve national immigration problems and so forth, is neglecting basic competence. 

The trees are a challenge, too, for Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith. Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis, is Bloomberg’s point man for transformative change on the cheap — that is, using his public-management expertise to save New York money while improving public services, chopping business regulations (a theme of Bloomberg’s speech today), and updating New York’s civil-service laws. 

Goldsmith, however, as the guy in charge of general operations, is also already New Yorkers’ face of failure on Sanitation’s abysmal snow-removal response to the December 26 blizzard. So when people see the trees, they think of Goldsmith. (“That’s the guy who didn’t know it was snowing — and now he’s left the trees out to rot.”)

Before they can win the public’s support on more ambitious ideas, Goldsmith and the mayor together have got a high hurdle to overcome in clearing New Yorkers’ decades-old perception that snow failure — and related Christmas-tree failure — equals general governance failure. 

The mayor should tell Goldsmith to start with the trees. Unless you have done the job on the street, you look out of touch with everyone else.

— Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. 

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