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Tree of Life Playground

We are pleased that we are able to give “new life” to this once majestic Buffalo landmark!

Tree Of Life Playground-Buffalo

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The staff of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo tried to keep the tree alive.

They hired someone to trim the tree and string wires to hold its heavy branches. They treated it for a bleeding canker fungus. They kept children off its shallow, fragile roots by designing “a tree house” with a ramp that spiraled around the tree’s trunk.

But when the 200-year-old beech tree dropped large branches onto the ground while children were playing, they realized it was time for the tree to come down.

The decision to take the tree down was heartbreaking, said Barbara Reden, the JCC’s director of early childhood services. It not only was the centerpiece of the playground, it also was one of the five oldest trees in Buffalo.

The JCC’s staff realized how old the tree was in 2005, when they designed a new playground for the front of their building, replacing a small one out back. The tree was given a premier spot in the new playground, completed in 2009, which featured a ramp wrapped around the tree’s trunk and a stage set.

The staff didn’t want to leave the tree as a stump. Instead, they hired a chainsaw artist to carve the once-70-foot-tall beech tree into a piece of art.

“It’s making us feel a whole lot better about it,” Reden said.

Rick Pratt is the artist tasked with the transformation. He began working with trees when he was 20 years old, but at that time, he was cutting them down. Twenty-five years ago, he began carving them instead.

“I used to work all day to make an empty spot,” Pratt said. “Now I get to make them into something.”

When he is finished, the 5-foot totem carving will have a squirrel, an owl, a sunflower, a bird and a rabbit.

Pratt began last week on the project of transforming the JCC’s tree into a sculpture. When he first saw the tree, a squirrel was sitting atop one of its branches. This became his first inspiration.

Pratt visualizes his projects before starting them. He said he prefers to have a general idea about the characters and theme, and then negotiate with the tree to see what should be placed where in the wood.

Pratt first tackled the approximately 6-foot wide tree by slicing big sections into 300-pound blocks. Then he added the shapes of characters.

The squirrel came first. Then came a sunflower, a rabbit and a bird.

Using his roaring chainsaw like a paintbrush, he stroked the wood with the blade to create feathers on the face of an owl. He will do this, he said, layer by layer, until the tree is a complete work of art.

The JCC’s staff selected the general design from a similar one with kid-friendly characters on Pratt’s website.

It’s the kids, after all, who spent the most time enjoying the tree while it was still standing. Many of the kids who ran between the center’s classrooms also ran along the ramp that wound itself around the old tree’s trunk. It was there that they learned how leaves drop off trees in the fall and grow back in the spring, and where they took shelter from the summer sun.

“Trees really go unnoticed,” Pratt said. Most drivers on Delaware didn’t acknowledge the tree, but those at the JCC did.

Teachers used the tree to teach the 180 kids who take classes at the center and 80 who go for after-school programs about the importance of the environment and preservation, Reden said. Kids learned to water the trees, and to stop themselves from picking off the bark.

While Pratt works on transforming the tree outside, the children are spending their play time filling an indoor playground with their laughs and yells. They haven’t forgotten about the tree, though. They press their noses to the windows and watch as Pratt shaves and shapes the tree into art.

They ask their teachers: “What’s he doing?” and “Why does he have three chainsaws?”

Soon the kids will know. Pratt’s completed work will sit in the JCC’s main foyer.

Outside, the kids will still see the playground and the ramp, but this time, there will be a new tulip tree in the beech tree’s place.


What Happened to the Beech tree?

In early April 2016, due to the continued deterioration of the tree and the concern for the safety and well-being of our children and participants, we were required to take down our tree. This tree has been part of the JCC history since the construction of the building in 1944. Though the decision was necessary, it was not easy.

Over many years we maintained the Beech Tree to the best of our ability.  It was annually trimmed, the roots aerated, watered, and treated for a fungus.  In 2012, the cables holding up the large branches were moved as the center trunk deteriorated.  Unfortunately, by 2014 the center trunk was dead, and branches periodically cracked and fell off. Despite the new cables, large branches continued to droop.  It was with heavy hearts that we had to take down the tree for the protection of the children in the spring of 2016.  It lived more than 200 years, but was clearly at the end of its life.

Some Playground Evolution History

It all started during the summer of 2002 when a parent (David Cohen) made a comment to Lydia Shapiro (a teacher) about the poor state of our little playground near the parking lot.  The old playground had a 20-year-old wooden climber, a couple of spring toys, a wooden car, and a blacktop paved bike path.  It could accommodate about 15 children at a time.  Both the Early Childhood Center and Kids Place after school program had steadily increased enrollment during the previous 5 years.  Lydia recruited David, several other parents, plus some staff members and our Playground Committee was created.  The first meeting was January 22, 2003.  We canvassed our stakeholders and agreed upon several principles, including the idea that separate play areas were needed for different age-groups with appropriate, fully accessible equipment and educational features.

We chose Dean Gowen as the designer and he worked closely with us to develop a plan that met our goals.  He and Debra Chernoff were instrumental in getting initial approval from the Buffalo Preservation Board.

The first fund-raiser was held June 17, 2003, a barbecue with potential funders from the community invited to attend. We soon had the promise of a matching grant from the Zemsky Family Foundation.  In addition, we received a grant from Erie County that enabled us to purchase the first piece of climbing equipment.  There were several other fund raising events, including several Winter Carnivals (first held in 2004) that included JCC members and the whole community.

By February of 2005, we went back to the drawing board.  The Holland Family Building had become a destination in the city and we needed more space for fitness and parking.  Dean redesigned the playgrounds and added special features to use our spacious front yard on Delaware Avenue.  It gave us room for more parking in the back, and much more playground space for our ever-growing population of children.  In fact, the new design included three separate playgrounds, each with features for a specific age group.  The revised plan was presented to the Preservation Board, the JCC Board of Directors, and the playground committee in the winter of 2005.

There were several areas of concern:
1.    Children should not be seen from the street
2.    We must protect the children and playground from accidents occurring at the corner of Delaware Avenue and Summer Street
3.    Protect the trees on the property

The minutes of the meeting on February 1, 2005 stated: Dean addressed the concern for the protection of the huge beech tree.  It is imperative that we protect its roots from compression. He envisions an elevated walkway with platforms giving the sense of a tree house while protecting the tree.  The structure might also serve as a “stage” with lawn seating below.

It was a lengthy process to refine the design, get approval for the new plan, raise money, and get the permits in place.  During this time, Dean designed our beautiful tree house and worked with RGR Brothers (now known as Buffalo Tree House) to turn the design into reality.  We also worked closely with Jeremy Sayers, the Tree Doctor, to assess and maintain the health of the tree.  

In the intervening time, the infamous October Storm of 2006 necessitated the removal of 5 Maple trees on our property.  The Beech tree and Gingko trees had almost no damage.  The playground plans were tweaked to include the planting of more trees to maintain our park-like environment.

The official ground breaking for the Tree of Life Playgrounds was held with great fanfare on September 21, 2008.  The fencing, corner wall, and screening from the street went in first.  Climbing structures came next.  The children started playing on the new toddler and preschool playgrounds! On June 14, 2009 we held a family event, built the sandboxes and created some of the gardens.

Funding for the Tree House and water play surface adjacent to it came from the Samuel Friedman Foundation.  The Tree House was built in the summer of 2009, with great care to minimize damage to the roots; and a formal dedication was held on October 7, 2009.  The structure and tree are the focus of the playground.  All the children cherish it and learn to appreciate the wonders of nature through their interaction with it.  

Though the life of our Beech tree has ended, new life will begin. We will continue a rich tradition of Tikun Olam (Repairing the World).

Anyone interested in donating to this project please contact Patty Simonson at (716) 204-2073 or Barbara Reden at (716) 886-3172, ext. 408.