Trees, Crime, and Tony Bouza

By Kostouros, John | American Forests, September-October 1989 | Go to article overview

Trees, Crime, and Tony Bouza


Kostouros, John, American Forests


One of the first things Tony Bouza did when he became captain of three Harlem police precincts was order trees planted in front of the station houses. In one location, that required taking a jackhammer to the front sidewalk to break up the concrete from building to curb. The order was a sign of things to come from the young police executive. It drew skepticism from the ranks and led to confrontations with Bouza's boss. And it demonstrated Bouza's strong belief that one of the best things that can be done to diminish criminal behavior is to improve the physical environment.

That same year, 1971, Bouza approached the New York City Parks Department and requested that the city begin planting trees along Harlem streets and in its parks. Years of neglect had produced an urban desolation Bouza felt was now contributing to Harlem's crime problems. Department officials turned him down, saying they feared for the safety of the planting crews. Bouza responded in typical Bouza fashion: he offered to provide armed police guards for the planting crews. The trees got planted.

In both cases, his colleagues questioned his judgement. Bouza remembers one officer, a black man. "Why are we doing this?" the man asked him. "This isn't police work.

"Because I want the blacks to have beauty and nature," Bouza replied. "They lead to civilized behavior. "

After two years Bouza moved on to the Bronx, where he was made chief of police. In his two-year tenure there he would be the subject of two television documentaries, one of which would serve as the inspiration for "Hill Street Blues." He was instrumental in starting Bronx Frontier, an organization that made mulch available to residents who wanted to start a garden. The project spawned a rash of inner-city vegetable and flower gardens.

Another Bouza project emanated from his train rides to work from his home in Westchester County, north of New York City. In Westchester, the Bronx River was, in Bouza's words, "idyllic, sylvan, bucolic. " By the time the river reached the Bronx, however, it was "a cesspool." The contrast was startling. The Bronx River Restoration Project was created to clean up the river.

How did an immigrant kid from Brooklyn get so interested in nature? Bouza remembers having his sensitivity to nature raised for the first time when his two boys were young. Every weekend he would take them to "nature movies" at the local auditorium. He realizes now that it was he, not the boys, who was getting the education. "I had grown up in Brooklyn. I didn't know anything about nature."

That personal interest in nature might never have entered his work had Bouza not been assigned early in his career to command a communications department at central police headquarters in Manhattan. The ultramodern building had no windows. It was supposed to be the ideal office building. Almost immediately, Bouza began getting complaints from his officers that they disliked being cut off from the outside world. They talked of the "submarine effect;" they felt like sailors confined in a submerged submarine.

So Bouza ordered a window installed on one of the upper floors. It didn't take long for the officers to congregate near the window during breaks. They commented on how much they liked being able to look out at the nearby trees. Bouza, ever the activist manager, took note and ordered more windows cut into the building. Morale improved in the department. The incident made an impression on the fledgling police administrator. His conclusion: people like to look at natural settings.

Anthony Bouza began his life in El Ferrol, Spain. He came with his family to the United States when he was nine and spent the rest of his childhood in Park Slope, Brooklyn. There he learned to be tough, fast on his feet, and even faster with his mouth. He can be caustic, flamboyant, even theatrical, depending on what he decides the situation calls for. …

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