Thursday, July 23, 2009

A tree grows in Brooklyn, and the Bronx

It should come as no surprise that trees are beneficial to the urban environment. They control temperature extremes by providing shade in the summer and blocking wind in the winter. They buffer sound. One healthy adult tree releases as much oxygen into the atmosphere in one year as ten adult humans remove. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and other toxins in the atmosphere. The list goes on and on.

Trees bring a sense of well being to a community. Research has shown that in otherwise comparable urban neighborhoods, crime rates in neighborhoods with trees tend to be lower than their treeless counterparts.

These are only the practical points. The emotional, spiritual and aesthetic benefits of trees are as countless as the number of leaves on every tree in every city in the world.

It's curious then that trees are probably taken for granted more than any other feature of our cities. Most city folks only notice trees when they disappear, when they have to rake leaves, or when a tree falls on their car.

The significance of the city tree is not lost on artists. Betty Smith wrote the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in the early forties. It tells the story of growing up in poverty in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The tree of the title is the Tree of Heaven, itself an immigrant of sorts, imported from Asia. This is very hardy species, a tenacious survivor, beginning life as a weed in back lots and alleys, but ultimately growing into a lovely shade tree if permitted or ignored. A fitting metaphor for the immigrant experience.

Pictured above is the Camperdown Elm, the most famous tree in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. It was planted 1872. By the mid sixties the tree, a cultivated variety, was terribly decayed and the cost of saving it seemed insurmountable. The poet Marianne Moore came to its defense and composed a poem for it which was published in the New Yorker. The Friends of Prospect Park eventually raised the funds to save the magnificent tree. Here is a wonderful tour of the trees of Prospect Park, compiled in part by M.M. Graff perhaps the greatest advocate of New York City's parks. Moore's poem can be found at the beginning of the tour. There certainly will be trees that have not survived the 40 years since the tour was compiled, but it a is a lovely and informative read just the same. Ms. Graff died in 2007 aged 97, and here is the obituary from the NY Times of this remarkable woman.

There is currently a wonderful public art project in New York City that brings attention to the urban tree, putting it into its proper context within the neighborhood. The name of the project is The Tree Museum and it can be found along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. The project is the brainchild of Katie Holden who won a competition sponsored by the Bronx Museum to commemorate the centennial of the Concourse this year.

The Tree Museum singles out 100 specific trees of 24 different species along the Concourse. Adjacent to each selected tree is a sign which identifies the tree giving its common name in English and Spanish, its scientific name, and an identification number. The viewer then is asked to dial a telephone number (718-408-2501), and add the id number when prompted for an extension. On the other end will be a recording, each one unique, featuring "the boulevard's stories and the intimate lives of the trees as told by current and former residents; from beekeepers to rappers, historians to gardeners, school kids to politicians."

Featured among the recordings are the voices of my oldest friend, New York City historian Francis Morrone, giving a history of the Concourse, architect Daniel Liebeskind, recalling his teenage years along the Concourse, Lurry Boyd, a community gardener, and Dart Westphal, a preservationist who was involved in the creation of a green space built around a threatened cottonwood tree at the northern tip of the Concourse. There is even a recording of Coquis, a variety of Puerto Rican tree frog.

The trees represent a who's who of urban tree species from the noble London Planetree, a hybrid of the Sycamore family whose leaf is the symbol of New York City's Department of Parks, to the lowly Ailanthus (aka Tree of Heaven or Skunk Tree), the eponymous tree of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

An outstanding book on the subject of trees in the city is The Urban Tree Book, An Uncommon Field Guide for City and Town, by Arthur Plotnik, coincidentally a native of the Bronx. While this book serves well for the identification of species, its real strengths lie in Mr. Plotkin's ability to tell a story, this one conveying lovingly the history and lore of each of the 200 odd species of trees found in the book.

It's a great read as well as an excellent resource.

So feel free to hug a tree!

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