A tree falls in Chelsea

A Callyer pear on West 22nd Street was a casualty of the storm. Photo: Deborah Fenker
An arboreal casualty is a reminder of how vulnerable — and miraculous — our city greenery is
by deborah fenker

Last week’s early snowfall that the authorities predicted would turn to rain never did, and in fact turned out to be substantially more profound a storm than most anyone expected. A projected one or two inches that would melt into puddles by rush hour turned into substantial and sloppy accumulation, wreaking havoc on both mass and private transit, and foiling the shoe choice of many who were understandably and unfortunately unprepared. The wet, heavy flakes settled onto vulnerable branches that had not yet lost their foliage, the slushy weight snapping branches like uncooked spaghetti and even felling an unprecedented number of specimens. Right here in Chelsea, we suffered an arboreal casualty that uprooted a thirty to forty year old Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana) on 22nd Street and took a good portion of the sidewalk with it, as well as a very shiny late model BMW that happened to be unluckily parked beneath.

One doesn’t often think of the trees that line the side streets of the city, except when they display their vibrant autumn foliage, bloom into fluffy nebulae of delicate spring blossoms, or droop their branches so low as to inhibit pedestrian traffic. The trees of New York subsist much like their human counterparts, crammed into living spaces much smaller than the ideal, and susceptible to daily toxicities, such a vehiclular pollution and a chronic basting of their roots with the dog urine of careless walkers and owners. The diminutive tree pits allotted to each tree are barely sufficient for their expansive root systems, which can grow up to three times as wide as a tree’s own canopy. While many trees feature a depth-seeking taproot, the majority of a tree’s nutrition come from these lateral roots that hover within the first few feet of soil, which in New York are unequivocally smothered by a layer of concrete. The soil, too, is so compacted that healthy root growth is virtually impossible, and when they become top-heavy with an accumulation of slush as they did last Thursday, heavy winds render them defenseless.

That the trees even grow as large as they do is something of a miracle, but the New York City Parks Department maintains a wide variety of them, from the stinky, slippery-leafed ginkos to the spectacularly showy fruit-blossom trees that explode come springtime. There are 2,983 trees documented in Chelsea alone, which one can find details of on the very informative and fascinating interactive NYC Parks Street Tree Map (tree-map.nycgovparks.org).

Or, perhaps, now 2,982. And that Callery pear wasn’t the only one to come down: a similar catastrophe befell a tree that night down on West 13th Street just across from The New School; I heard of another on the news on the Upper East Side, one in SoHo, and another car-crushing incident on Queens Boulevard in Kew Gardens. No borough is immune. A month or so ago I saw one tree downed near Greenwich and Perry, no traumatic weather involved, but it pulled up the tree pit barrier and half the sidewalk all the same.

The city was fairly swift, all things considered, to remove the Callery pear from the BMW. They sawed the trunk into chunks (the tree, not the car), which remains stacked beside the stump on the south side of the street, its branches mounded on the north side into a leafy mass about the same size as the car it crushed.

The Parks Department issued a statement to alert the public of a blitz of branch-trimming last Sunday as a result of all the downed trees and limbs. On the surface, it seems tragic to have to cut back any of these life-giving beauties, as well as compromise their effectiveness for the crucial services they provide, from intercepting stormwater and buffering gales, to lowering temperatures with their benevolent shade, to perhaps their most important function of all, cleaning the air of toxins and capturing carbon dioxide to produce the oxygen we depend upon as humans. But a little preventative downsizing is vastly preferable to losing a whole, half-century old one, along with the potential destruction of whatever happens to lie beneath.