Seeing Trees: A History of Street Trees in New York City and Berlin

Reviewed by Leslie Day

Seeing Trees: A History of Street Trees in New York City and Berlin
By Sonja Dumpelmann
Yale University Press, 2018
336 pages

Sonja Dumpelmann’s important history of street trees in two major cities, New York and Berlin, helps us understand their role in not just obvious areas like health and beauty, but also civil rights and women’s rights. It is a unique look at the connections between humanity and trees in dense urban settings.

From the mid-19th century through the early 20th century, New Yorkers had a great interest in learning about the planting and care of urban trees in major European cities, especially Paris and Berlin. In turn, European landscape architects had been influenced by the early success of Pierre L'enfant’s plans for designing Washington, DC in the late 18th century, plans based (in a recurrent form of “Atlantic crossings”) on the beauty of Versailles, with its wide tree-lined boulevards, open parks and lovely gardens.

Urban planners, landscape designers, health officials and public servants in New York were invested in learning how trees might survive the difficult urban environment: extreme heat and cold, pollution, poor soil, and salted streets. Berlin was considered a model, and New Yorkers yearned for something like its riverside parks and shady streets. By the late 1800s, the many benefits of trees to urban life had finally been recognized by various stakeholders, and there was a strong push to start planting.

Civil Rights

It is well known that neighborhoods with abundant trees are more beautiful, more sought-after, and therefore more expensive to live in. Poor neighborhoods often have fewer trees and higher rates of crime and health problems, particularly asthma. The Million Tree initiative created by Michael Bloomberg and Bette Midler sought to plant trees in such neighborhoods, thus mitigating the harm to residents' emotional psyches and the very air they breathed. According to Dumpelmann’s significant research, however, there is also a strong bond between trees and the fight for civil rights by African Americans, particularly in Brooklyn. The story of Hattie Carthan, a woman in her 70’s, who took it upon herself to save the destruction of an 80-year old Southern magnolia tree and the three beautiful brownstones behind it in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn in the late 1960’s is inspirational. Carthan became known as the Tree Lady of Brooklyn and led a hugely successful grassroots initiative to save existing trees and plant new ones, thus asserting the rights of African Americans, particularly women and children, to take back their neighborhoods through “plant-ins.” The civil rights riots in Harlem and Bed Stuy, begun in 1964 after a 15- year old African American student was killed by police, brought into clear public view the treeless, trash and rat infested streets--which had once been safe, tree-lined neighborhoods. Trying to save that one magnolia tree persuaded Hattie Carthan and neighbors throughout parts of Brooklyn to form more than one hundred block associations, which had children plant and care for thousands of trees. This activity even prompted Mayor Lindsey to visit. The Parks Department then began its tree-matching program: for every four trees a block association planted, the city would provide six more. I was so moved by Carthan’s work that I looked up this magnolia tree--the only living landmark in New York City, and learned that one of the brownstones saved by Carthan’s efforts became the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, a site for environmental studies for neighborhood children and adults. A mural of Hattie Carhan is painted on the building.

Women’s Rights

As the fight for women’s rights dragged on through the 19th century, women in New York took it upon themselves to fight for trees. As the city became more and more industrialized, under the control of men, women also began asserting their right to beautify blocks and backyards by planting and protecting trees. Near the turn of the century, the Ladies’ Auxiliary Tree Planting Association was formed by the Greenwich branch of the Women’s Washington Square district, which in turn created the Tenement House Shade Tree Committee. Although it was widely believed that men were only interested in development, the early feminist Mary Ritter Beard said “Men too often cannot see the moral issues at stake in living on treeless streets.” Women’s Clubs across the country were formed for tree planting and protection, and animal rights. This was a way for women to move out of the home and into the community, using their power as a group to improve the neighborhoods they lived and travelled in and to promote social reform at a time when millions of poor immigrants were arriving in the city. It was an eye opener for me to learn about the role the early women’s organizations played in their fight for street trees. In reading about the history and activities of the Municipal Arts Society, the New York City Gardens Club, the Women’s League for the Protection of Riverside Park, the New York Bird and Tree Club, the Women’s League for Animals, and the Horticultural Society of New York, I was fascinated to learn about the important work of these women in their fight to bring beauty and health to New Yorkers. Most of these organizations are active today, continuing to beautify our city and make it healthier for all New Yorkers.

Health

In 1887 Dr. Stephen Smith, a life-long public health reformer, introduced a bill to the New York State Legislature to plant and care for street trees in New York City. Smith authored a scientific study that correlated the high temperatures of summer with childhood deaths from infectious diseases. Based on this study, he believed that the terrible heat in the tenements was magnified by the lack of tree shade. The crippling heat, he argued, led to a spike in childhood mortality in the hot summer months. The fact that many children below the age of five died in the tenements by 1872 inspired him to push the city to plant trees in the congested areas of lower Manhattan--which, he believed, would save up to 8,000 lives per year, especially infants and toddlers. Smith and others used scientific data to prove that trees could provide enormous relief to families packed into stifling tenements. This was the beginning of the street tree movement in New York City. In 1911, at the age of 88, Smith became president of the city’s Tree Planting Association, which he helped found at the turn of the century.

Protecting Trees

Street tree guards were put in not only to keep dogs from despoiling the soil around trees, but also to keep horses that were tied up to trees from gnawing away at the bark. There is an amazing photograph in this book of a street with every single tree carved out by chewing horses, making them look like they had been attacked by an army of beavers.

Wartime

After World War II, Berlin was a divided, bombed-out place. In the East, the Department of Open Space Planning hired thousands of workers to remove rubble and plant trees. Women made up to 60% of this workforce.

To help alleviate hunger, Mountain Ash trees, which produce large crops of orange berries high in vitamins, were planted and protected. Street trees provided firewood immediately after the war, however, fruit bearing trees were not allowed to be cut down for fire wood.

Years after the war, workers discovered that the Nazis had planted explosives in a row of trees on a main avenue in Berlin. It wasn’t until 1955 that these explosives were discovered and removed.

Street tree planting in Berlin took off after the reunification of the city. Dumpelmann writes “Tree planting was a displacement activity, an activity that sought to heal the fissures of the German psyche as well as the physical fissures in the urban fabric, an activity that expressed the desire to make Berlin whole again and to overcome the different cultural traditions, frameworks and collective memories in East and West Germany. It was an activity that defied the past and looked to the future.”

Urban trees and city people need each other. This book looks deeply into this relationship and it is filled with wonderful stories of individuals and organizations that made, and still make, a difference in our lives.

Leslie Day is the author of Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City, Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York City, Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City, and Honeybee Hotel: The Waldorf Astoria's Roof Garden and the Heart of New York City.