HABITATS

Oakland’s Stealth Arborist

West Oakland resident Joey Santore is often on the lookout for neglected medians or public spaces where he might secretly plant a tree.
JASON HENRY
West Oakland resident Joey Santore is often on the lookout for neglected medians or public spaces where he might secretly plant a tree.
Guerrilla gardener Joey Santore has planted more than 300 trees, encouraging a new appreciation of our habitat—and one another.

Last fall, two very different approaches to addressing climate change unfolded in the Bay Area.

One Atmosphere commissioned a 60-by-30-foot mural of climate activist Greta Thunberg for San Francisco’s Union Square. Painted on the side of an eight-story building, the fiery teenager looks determined and unbowed, gazing down at pedestrians and traffic with eyes the size of windscreens. Per the sponsoring organization, a rendering of the Swedish teen as big as Washington’s face on Mount Rushmore is an effective way to honor and amplify a message of environmental stewardship for a warming planet.

Meanwhile, across the bay, Tony Santoro’s Guide to Illegal Tree-Planting debuted. The 23-minute video—released the week before the mural’s reveal—is the work of a tattooed, foulmouthed Chicago transplant who for the past few years has been quietly greening up Oakland.

All right, not that quietly. Hard to mistake the voice-over’s blue-collar, lunch-bucket bawl for Sir David Attenborough when the speaker declares that planting trees—givers of oxygen, creators of atmosphere—“makes the turd of life…easier to swallow.”

Tony Santoro is the online alias of West Oakland resident Joey Santore, whose YouTube channel Crime Pays but Botany Doesn’t is a rebuff to conventional nature documentaries. (He also produces a podcast of the same name.) In his videos, Santore offers observations and advice on how to cultivate habitats in neglected urban areas, his narration veering from erudition (“Over here you got some coast live oaks, Quercus agrifolia”) to irreverence (“Grew these bastards from seed”).

“I did a couple videos where I talked in my normal voice, but it just didn’t feel right,” says Santore. “So I put all this narration through this voice of a 50-year-old Chicago mook from the West Side.” Think Dan Aykroyd in The Blues Brothers dialed to 11. (Face-to-face, the 37-year-old Santore softens his accent to about 8.) “It’s a way for me to throw a couple jabs at the elements of society that kind of irk me.”

Santore and his dog stroll through their West Oakland neighborhood. JASON HENRY
Santore, a resident of West Oakland, makes his living as a locomotive driver. Botany is his passion.

Santore has been throwing shade figuratively and literally in his adopted hometown since moving there in 2006. By his own estimate, he has planted somewhere between 300 and 400 trees, mostly native and drought-tolerant oaks and cypresses, along medians and in parks. The YouTube field botany videos came along later, when he realized that much of the habitat he was enhancing, and in some cases creating, merited documentation before it disappeared to make way for a “futureless car-slum,” as he puts it.

Trees are a side pursuit. As his online handle suggests, botany doesn’t cover the bills. Santore works a day job driving diesel locomotives. His life as a guerrilla forester began when he noticed some of the public spaces the city was ignoring. Possibilities opened up. “It was like a blank canvas,” he says, “very much like graffitiing except less likely to piss people off.”

Santore goes for species that are fast-growing and resilient, preferably native. Trees that can hack it without pruning and summer watering. Rainy winter is planting season, giving his seedlings months to take root. He admits to being borderline contemptuous of maples and rosebushes. His priority is making habitats, not only leaves and pretty flowers. “I just want to create a more pleasant place to go,” he says, “and provide some sort of food or benefit to birds, bugs, and shit like that.”

Some of his tree babies meet an untimely end, felled by pollution, city maintenance, or swerving vehicles. But many thrive, and some of his earliest plantings are now impressive specimens. He keeps a stash of 40 to 50 saplings in his backyard and at a friend’s nursery, awaiting the next chance to sneak a tree onto a median or into another opportune location.

This modern Johnny Appleseed would have preferred to have been out planting when we met, but some corrective shoulder surgery has him temporarily sidelined. Nothing major, but a shovel takes two arms. However, the downtime has allowed him to post more videos about botanizing the Bay Area. “I want to inspire people to look at the world differently,” he says. “We don’t value plants, we don’t value habitat, often we don’t value each other. This shit’s connected.”

There’s a parallel between Santore’s efforts and the present plight of his city. Whether it’s oaks or Oaklanders, there’s a lack of suitable habitat for many. A shantytown of homeless people has sprung up adjacent to the neighborhood where he’s been doing much of his planting. “This is what happens when you don’t have any regulations in place to protect the people on the bottom,” he says. “We don’t value anything geologically or botanically unless it has a direct benefit for us.”

Cirrus Wood is a Berkeley-based journalist and photographer. He wrote about California-grown coffee for altaonline.com.