Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Plight of Urban Trees
in Trenton

or, Stuff that happens in Trenton, but no where else, part 2

I've only been back in Trenton for three years (I'm a Johnny-Come-Lately), so it's not as if I've spoken with every single person in this city. But I get a distinct feeling that a lot of residents here are anti-tree. I heard a woman at community meetings say repeatedly that she's worried about gang members lurking behind trees in her neighborhood, and several others just quiver at the thought of all of the bugs living in trees.

I know that there is some truth to what city officials are saying about the crime rates -- they are lower for certain types of crimes, and so, we don't see many thugs lurking behind trees. But violent crime in this city is up. Most knuckleheads, including gang members, are entrenched in the "look at me" culture, and wouldn't be satisfied hiding behind trees -- because then we wouldn't see their fancy shoes, chains, braids, gold "fronts," etc. Also, their loud music and showy tire rims would give away their location behind trees. These guys are such attention-hoes that they commit bigger, more terrible crimes, right out in the open, and they count on the rest of us to keep quiet about it, as a means to their few minutes of fame. Sad, really. But it lets the trees off the hook.

And as far as bugs living in trees, well, there are bugs everywhere: in the grass, under the cement, in the air, we all have native flora and fauna crawling all over and through our bodies, at any given time. Bugs are just a factor of life, with or without trees.

I like trees a lot, so I called the city last year to have a couple of trees planted on my corner -- I had taken the Master Gardener class and was thoroughly convinced that the trees would not only beautify our corner, but they'd also help us with our energy bills. I had an ulterior motive, though: for months, we were plagued by young men selling drugs on our corner, with its clear view down to three major roads and one major landmark, checking for the police. A couple of trees might block their view a bit.

So, I called the city, and I didn't take note of the person's name with whom I spoke, but we had a nice conversation. He said, "Wow, I can't tell you how many calls a week we get from city residents who want us to take down the trees alongside the road. They're worried about thugs, bugs, and debris." He went on to explain how much value a tree adds to a city landscape: trees, he said have been shown to increase property value, prevent erosion, lower our energy bills, improve air quality, and give migratory birds a place to stop on their way south. And block the view a bit for drug dealers, I said, noting that our corner was the only one of the four in this intersection that didn't have a couple of large trees on each side, and we were on the side with the most crime. My new friend in the urban forestry department said that there have been studies that trees actually reduce crime, for a number of reasons. But he felt that part of the reason is that trees make the neighborhood more attractive, and when the neighborhood is more attractive, people come out to play and talk, and get to know one another. Trees in the urban landscape show that the community cares; it's much easier for crime to breed in areas where people don't care and don't talk to one another. I found some literature online to back up that theory.

I asked him if I could pick a species for our corner. He said that I could tell him what I wanted, and it was a possibility. However, the city had just received a grant and had a glut of certain types of trees. I said my main concern was diversity -- it would be nice to get something other than sycamore (which we have in abundance alongside the streets in our neighborhood), just in case they're all hit with a disease, we won't lose them all. I thought a ginkgo might be nice -- I've always loved the leaves, and don't really mind the vomity smell of their nuts (and figure a bit of puke smell might send the knuckleheads elsewhere, too); but mostly, I thought they'd be appropriate because of their relatively straight growth pattern: they don't branch out as much, so they wouldn't get tangled in the power/phone lines, and they wouldn't fall on my roof.

A couple of weeks later, we received two sycamore trees. Oh well. Sycamores look a little ratty in August, but their bark is interesting, and they grow quickly.

This year, we have far less drug traffic on our corner. I know there are a couple of factors at play, but I do believe the trees helped -- I'm outside more to take care of them, and talk more with neighbors because of it. There are other specific factors at play, which helped this neighborhood, and I don't want to make my location THAT obvious to respect the privacy of some folks around here. So, the trees weren't the only factor, but I think they helped, even in a small way.

But with all of their other, non-crime fighting benefits, I find it odd when people slaughter them on their own property. We have a mulberry -- a weed tree, to be sure -- straddling our property. The trunk is in the neighbor's yard, and the canopy is mostly in our yard. We are aggravated for several months while this thing produces purple berries prolifically...everything is purple, even the bird poop, from May until July. But we've been trying to make the most of that, too -- it provides nice shade, so I planted a bunch of shade-loving plants under it; and when it's producing berries, I get ambitious for a couple of days and collect them to make flavored brandies, vinegars, and once, even jam. It makes way too many berries, though, and well, one can only consume so much mulberry-flavored stuff, so I usually burn out quickly.

So we were shocked when we found our neighbors standing in the mulberry tree, chopping down every single limb on their side of the fence. They butchered it. It wasn't an attractive tree before, but now, it's downright ugly; painful, even to look at. What's frustrating is that my carefully-crafted shade garden of hostas, astilbe, ajuga, ferns, and solomon's seal is roasting in the sun. It's not our tree, so I know I have no recourse. I have no right to my view, or shade, or anything, sadly, but it would have been nice to get a bit of warning that the pruning was going to be more of a brutalization. And the other amazing thing about this is that they did absolutely no research about cutting back a mulberry. This is not a delicate ornamental, but a hardy, invasive tough guy. At the site of each amputation are tufts of new growth, and little bursts of green up each injured limb. It's a fighter, and it might take a couple of years (by which time the owner of that property will have sold, to be sure), but that tree will be better than ever, probably producing even more berries. I have cursed that tree, but now I smile at its regenerative abilities in the face of abuse.

Here are some pictures of the quick mulberry regrowth:

Because of the mulberry attack, we were on edge last weekend when we saw not one, but three tree removal trucks pull up alongside our house. But they wound up going nuts on X's property, a property not touching ours. Whew. X cut down every tree in her backyard, and cut off the limbs of her neighbor's spruce trees that dangled into her property. That neighbor, R, had asked her not to, but X said they were damaging her house...funny, we can see from here that they weren't even close to her house. Because of what happened with us and the mulberry, we did some reading on NJ laws surrounding trees, and it seems that there aren't too many laws that would protect someone like R from X's tree butchers, unless R's tree dies. There appear to be case precidents elsewhere in the country that would allow X to sue R for four times the worth of an old, helpful tree. And in this state, the Department of Environmental Protection commissioned a group of economists to come up with a method to put dollar values on the state's natural resources. Its focus is on beaches and bogs and barrens, but I would imagine it's now easier than ever to determine the worth of an old tree in your backyard.

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Ioannis Petrus said...

You said your mulberry was an invasive. Are you sure it was not the eastern red mulberry Morus rubra, the very tough native? Of course it mostlikely is the Morus alba from Asia or a hybrid of the two. I really liked your posting; somehow we have taken our centuries of traditions and fears of nature a little too far, and in the name of a little relief from near term possible cost, are probably pressuring our ecosystems beyond repiar. Then we shall all pay the reaper, city dweller and country alike. Ioannis petrus, of "Invasive Notes"

Chrissy said...

The mulberry straddling our property is Morus rubra, and you're right, it's not really invasive, just reallytough. I find a lot of volunteers. With the neighbors cutting down perfectly healthy oaks and maples and spruces, the "junk" trees fill in the void. Our little chunk of neighborhood is littered with mulberry, sumac, and mimosa, and I suppose the mimosa is the only one that is truly not native to this area, but is just as productive as their native counterparts.

Thanks for posting. I'm going to check out your blog right now.