A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for Lee Shelley


When someone passes away, we often reminisce on their life and what they lived for. Well, at the foot of the Penn Park Pennsylvania Avenue location, which was re-named in September as the Shirley Chisholm State Park by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a small red oak tree stands tall as the embodiment of a life that was lived in the service of others. On December 12th, the tree was planted by the Department of Environmental Protection in memory of Leander “Lee” Shelley with members of his family and friends present, as well as Friends of Penn and Fountain Parks, the New York State National Parks representatives and others.

The red oak tree, a symbol of ancient wisdom, towering strength, and pure consistency, will live on for over 250 years, just like the illuminating life of Shelley. About two years ago, the Spring Creek Towers’ (SCT) community lost an amazing individual and environmental advocate. Shelley was the President of Friends of Penn and Fountain Parks, Inc., which is an organization that has worked tirelessly advocating for the trans-formation of Penn and Fountain Parks from a landfill into an oasis, as well as opening it to the public. For years, Shelley would meet with members of the community, the Department of Environmental Protection, political representatives and anyone else who would listen. He saw the 407-acres of parkland as a beautiful piece of nature, one that should be shared with members of SCT and the rest of the Brooklyn community.

Upon a small hill within the vast grassland of Penn Park stands the small red oak tree. In front of this freshly planted tree is a bronze plaque in memory of Shelley. The inscription on this plaque reads: “Dedicated to the Memory of Lee Shelley, President of Friends of Penn & Fountain Parks, Inc. His unbelievable vision for these parks will endure forever. And whose vision to transform these sites into parks has now been realized. This Oak Tree will stand in his honor to symbolize his unwavering determination for the rebirth of these sites into beautiful parks for the community to enjoy.”

The coordinator of Shelley’s tree planting memorial was John McLaughlin, the Managing Director for the NYC Environmental Protection, Bureau of Environmental Planning & Analysis Office of Eco-system Services, Green Infra-structure and Research. McLaughlin knew Shelley for many years (through meetings about the status of the parks and hosting bus tours). “Lee would always start off a phone call with the words ‘My friend,’” said McLaughlin and that was exactly what their relationship became over the years—friends.

“Lee was not only a friend to all of us here, but he was a friend to the community. He was the bridge between the agencies and the community and helped developed trust between all of us. Some of those early meetings were challenging, but Lee put his reputation on the line and told the community that they needed to trust us,” McLaughlin said fondly.

Shelley’s courage, unwavering determination, and ability to trust and have faith in others were just a few of his wonderful characteristics. He was a man who believed in people. Shelley trusted that the administration and staff at the Department of Environmental Protection would continue to work towards completing his dream of opening the parkland to the public. He envisioned these parks not as landfills under construction, but as beacons of hope for Brooklyn.

“The red oak tree is being planted for Lee because it stands for leader-ship, loyalty, friendship—all of the qualities that he had,” McLaughlin said. Like the oak tree, Shelley’s work at Penn and Fountain Parks will continue to grow and reach many generations to come.

There are natural splendors residents in SCT can enjoy, but for the entire Brooklyn community access to nature is limited. Shelley saw this parkland as an opportunity to connect with the environment and appreciate the world around us.

His daughter, Alicia Shelley, spoke on behalf of her family at the tree planting memorial. “My dad put his heart and soul into these parks for years, voluntarily. I remember 30 years of seeing the blue print of these parks on our kitchen table, and my dad would always want to share it with myself and my brothers what the parks were all about. It was always a part of our home, and that’s because it was a part of him. We embraced it because he was so passionate about these parks. He had many loves in his life and the parkland was one of them,” Alicia Shelley said.

For years, Shelley would find a way to host tours of the parkland with his organization. These tours were often held in the summer, and would show off Penn and Fountain Parks in all of its splendor. But the tours were just a small taste, and Shelley wanted more. He yearned for the day that the parks would be open to everyone for picnics, hiking, and other fun outside adventures.

On September 6th 2018, Governor Andrew Cuomo along with constituents renamed Penn and Fountain Parks the Shirley Chisholm National State Park. The parkland is set to open in the summer of 2019 for the first phase. Leslie Wright, the Regional Director of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, attended Shelley’s memorial and stated that the parks will indeed be open to the public, offering activities like biking, hiking, fishing, kayaking, and environmental education, and amenities such as comfort stations, shade structures and concessions.

Photos by Amanda Moses