Two weeks after the shock of September 11th, I was sent to “ground zero” by the Parks Department Commissioner to make a quick evaluation of the damage to the plant life in the area. The Commissioner wanted to know what had survived, what plants would need to be replaced, how much it would all cost. He was eager to help rejuvenate the area with trees.
I am deputy director of Central Forestry, the unit of the Parks Department that oversees all the city’s street trees. If a Park Ranger in Yellowstone is responsible for the preservation and safety of that landscape, Central Forestry is no less responsible for the preservation and safety of New York City’s street tree forest. For my job, and my pleasure, I think about New York City’s plants.
And I pictured the flora in lower Manhattan covered in a film of ash. After a fire in the forest, the trees and shrubs and wildflowers are all coated in a dust of embers. The trees immediately adjacent to the Towers, like trees in the direct path of a storm, I assumed would be destroyed completely. But nature is unpredictable. Small skinny trees whacked from all sides by powerful winds are left standing and big strong oaks on the periphery of the squall are felled. When I made it to “ground zero,” I was surprised to see that there were three pear trees no less than 200 feet away from the carnage of the Towers that had survived with just a few blemishes.
Pear trees figure often in my professional thoughts. There are about 500,000 street trees citywide. Each year, Central Forestry adds to this number (it’s not a straight increase—many dead trees must be removed) by money received from the Mayor, Council members, and Borough Presidents. Since 1997, we have planted approximately 12,000 a year. Thirteen percent of this number are callery pears (Pyrus calleryana), the tree most requested by New York City citizens and the fifth most populous tree on our sidewalks. It is particularly widespread in Manhattan, where residents favor its blast of white flowers in the early spring.
In the 1950s, urban landscapers discovered and fell in love with the callery pear tree from Asia. Shipped home, it was genetically tinkered with here in American plant nurseries, and then turned into a splendid street tree. It didn’t drop messy sticky pears on the sidewalk and cars. It flowered richly. And it was unflagging, thriving despite the pollution, the salt used to melt ice, the shit and piss of dogs, and the general ripe debris of the metropolis. For decades, tens of thousands of these trees sprung up along the roads of New York City.
They are not, however, without their weaknesses. They tend to be short-lived and weak-limbed. They have “poor structure,” the branches fragile at the juncture with the trunk, which can make them burst open or fall off during bad frosts and storms. And they have a dark furrowed bark that gets stained and ugly.
But they have, in the long run, proven to be a staple of street tree planting, its virtues outweighing its drawbacks. City residents don’t seem to tire of the tree’s glamorous cloak of white flowers; and when one household suddenly has a specimen on the sidewalk in front of their home, all the neighbors rush to have one too.
On September 25, at the Commissioner’s orders, I went to “ground zero” with two colleagues, Gail and Doug. Gail is the chief landscape designer for the unit and Doug an excellent urban forester. As we traveled from our office in Queens, life, viewed from inside our jeep, seemed regular. At Canal Street, however, the police presence surged, and we were only able to get through the checkpoints because of my badge. As we approached the Towers, the smell in the air changed from its standard car exhaust sootiness to a fire-laden decay. There was a layer of sparkling gray soot on the leaves, on the soil in the tree pits, on the surface of the buildings, on people’s clothes, flaking the streets.
Gail is pregnant, and her husband had banned her from getting out of the car and inhaling the impurities in the air. He had even restricted her from having the windows opened in the car. Being banned from something is antithetical to Gail, and she was near bristling. She is assiduously independent. She tends to trust that her strength and purity of spirit and enterprise will prevail over the world’s rottenness. To have to seriously consider being caged in the car while Doug and I got to venture into the “war zone” was like breaking the legs of a world class runner. She said, “I feel like a dog.” Self-pityingly, however, she accepted her husband’s logic and stayed in the car as Doug and I set out.
After showing my badge and snaking around a line of large trucks, we were told by an officer to go to the second floor of the Burger King to get hard hats and respirators. On the side of the building was spray painted “Morgue,” with an arrow facing south. We didn’t plan on staying long, so we just took hard hats.
If I had been able to ignore or block out what I knew had happened on the 11th I could have looked out at the devastation and come to the conclusion that lower Manhattan had experienced perhaps an earthquake or volcano blast. It could have been a sad, but sinless site. The rescue workers talked about sports and took bets on the next mayor, and looked fatigued and ponderous. In their midst, Doug and I felt awkward, like trespassers. We didn’t really belong. I averted my eyes downward as I passed the sweaty men and women who had obviously been toiling day after and day since September 11th.
But we wanted our look, we had come all this way. We moved closer to the toppled Towers, which looked like an angry frozen dragon. The folded and twisted metal all but snarled.
Then we noticed, on the plaza, perhaps just about 200 feet away from the Towers, three pear trees still standing, alive and unscathed. If you were to have hugged one of these trees during the attack all the falling wreckage would have missed you. It was amazing, really, and I was bit stunned. We took a few more moments to register what we were seeing, and then turned around and left.
The next day, the three of us came up with an estimation of the injury done to the street trees. It was an educated guess. The real damage to the plants in the near radius of the former Towers won’t be revealed until the spring. Most, we gather, will sprout their buds and then their flowers and leaves. Plants have been long adapted to swirls of heavy dust, to eruptions, to fires, to great disturbances. A good rain and a sunny day can usually bring them back to life. By all accounts, if not removed because of the clean up effort, the pear trees on the plaza of the World Trade Center on some sunny day next April will flower their brilliant white again.
Sometime during the week of November 5th, before World Trade Center Number 5 is demolished, the three pear trees will be lifted out of their tree pits and taken to a new home. First, a bobcat will remove the decorative wrought iron grating that surrounds each tree. For the most part, the grating is undamaged and will be recycled in street tree pits in other locations. Then a tree spade, which is a bulldozer with a circular claw attachment, will sink its teeth into the small hollow and lift the tree out. The entire specimen, its roots now hanging and loose like disheveled hair and the root ball a giant head of soil (this root ball will be wrapped in burlap), will be put on a flat bed truck and taken to a gardened spot across from City Hall and adjacent to the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge. There, the tree spade will dig a large hole and then the pear trees will be fitted snugly into the ground, quiet green reminders of September 11th.