A Tree Grows in SoHo

IMG_3385This past week, we had the trees in the back yard of our building taken down.  They were sick and old and we intervened too late to save them.  They had become a serious liability, growing higher than our four story building, their soaring limbs just waiting to be blown away in the next big storm.  A neighbor reflects on our loss:

I know she had to come down but I was crazy about that tree. Ghetto palms in general and “ours” in particular. Such a wondrous species. I remember examining the roots when I was little and being amazed to discover that it was growing out of about an inch of silt on top of concrete. And over four decades grew to be four stories tall! Beautiful, where and how they take root.

It was thus an eerie surprise when Roz Bernstein, co-author of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo and resident of Wooster Street, sent me the following guest post about the beloved trees on Wooster Street being taken down.

SoHo’s Purloined Trees Are Gone

By Roslyn Bernstein
The facade of 80 Wooster Street before the tree was removed

The facade of 80 Wooster Street before the tree was removed

Recently, the New York City Department of Parks sent six men and three trucks with two chain saws to cut down George Maciunas’s trees. The noise was deafening as one of the men, in a cherry picker, wielded his saw while the other below was piling the fallen limbs.

The founder of the Fluxus Art movement, the founding father of SoHo, and the man whose office was in the basement of 80 Wooster Street, Maciunas would never have let it happen. Not if he were alive!

Liberated some 45 years ago, when Maciunas uprooted two trees from a parking lot near Canal Street, they were planted in front of 80 Wooster to conceal the ingenious electrical work done by Maciunas’s workers to provide free electric service to Jonas Mekas’s ground-floor, avant-garde theater, the New York Film-makers’Cinematheque.

According to a tale told by Mekas, the morning after the trees were planted, two female police officers came to Mekas and told him to remove the purloined trees. Mekas woke Maciunas who was still asleep in his basement space only to be told that Mekas should tell the officers that, if they wanted to, they could remove the trees themselves. Armed with his Bolex movie camera, Mekas conveyed the message. After a moment or two the officers left, never to return.

The tree in the process of being removed.

The tree in the process of being removed.

In May 2007, plaques started appearing on cultural sites primarily in downtown Manhattan. The plaques were installed by Creative Time who asked various artists to select 32 places to commemorate historical art projects for an event called One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This. A 33rd plaque was selected by input from the public. This plaque was affixed to the larger of the two trees in front of 80 Wooster Street. The plaque noted that Fluxhouse Coop II was started by George Maciunas who planted the tree.

Three years later, the trees, now well over 50 feet tall, began losing considerable branches in strong winds. “The trees were at the end of their useful life,” said building resident William Downey, who added that they were an invasive specimen (probably Ailanthus) that usually lived about 40 years. “We hired a private tree company to do a little trimming and, after they did their work, we asked them if they could prune it more.”

Their answer was a bit surprising: The City owns these trees they said, insisting that the City owned all trees on the sidewalks. They added that to do anything to them owners had to, at the very least, get a permit. Further investigation by building residents proved that the City did indeed own George’s trees. A short time later, the City ruled that the trees were indeed a danger and that they should be cut down.

For residents of 80 Wooster, meanwhile, the situation became more complicated. No longer only about liability, they were facing the reality of having to install a new standpipe system in their building which meant finding a place for a new water pump. “The only basement space that was available was in a storage room in the area of the north tree,” Downey explained, “and at least one of the contractors said that he could not bring the water service in with a tree there.” All of the contractors were horrified that the tree was so close to the foundation.

Another call was made to the Parks Department. This time the Parks Department showed up with a cherry picker and a saw. Within two hours, the trees were cut down and the branches carted away, leaving two flat circles, 18 and 26 inches in diameter, along with a great deal of sawdust.

Treeless 80 Wooster

Treeless 80 Wooster

“I feel like I’ve lost two children,” said Jonas Mekas.  “I remember how we planted them with George, how we watered them, how we protected them from the police who wanted us to uproot them. I also feel it marks the end of an era. Until now, SoHo was still part of a living memory of a heroic period when artists, led by George Maciunas’s unbending vision, embarked on the transformation of Manhattan’s downtown. The death of the two trees marks a new era: a total integration of SoHo into the overall map of the City of New York. The project, which George considered his real work of art, has been finally completed.”

Roslyn Bernstein is the co-author with Shael Shapiro of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo.

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16 Responses to “A Tree Grows in SoHo”

  1. Carol Goodden Says:

    These posts are so wonderful. I know 80 Wooster St. by heart, watching the Fluxus operations, talking to Jonas Mekas and Maciunas, but mostly playing with and dancing with Trisha Brown, who had a loft there on one of the upper floors, maybe even the top floor, can’t remember. I was part of Trisha’s dance company started in the ’70s. It was from 80 Wooster St. that Trisha made her famous dance Man Walking Down the Side of a Building. I have the photograph of that performance. She had rigged mountain climbing equipment to works on the roof and tied her husband to the pulleys. Jed Bark and Richard Nonas assisted. Then her then husband, Joseph Schlichter stood on the parapet of 80 Wooster. He then “fell” over the edge, and walked down the side of the building between fire escapes. I wish I knew how to attach the photo here.

  2. Sean Sweeney Says:

    The issue of trees in SoHo is certainly a contentious one as this1993 NY Times story indicates. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/04/28/nyregion/landmarks-panel-mired-in-detail-critics-say.html
    The Landmarks Preservation Commission would not issue permits for trees, claiming, preposterously, that there were no trees in this manufacturing district in the 19th century. However, lithographs of trees on Broadway in the 1900s contradict that assertion and wild trees, like alianthus, are not uncommon in the rear yards. Yet, LPC remained firm.

    However, Giuliani’s Parks Commissioner, Henry Stern, just ignored the LPC’s decision and joined with us to plant trees along West Broadway.

    LPC will also not issue permits for planters. But, again, in the spirit of Macunias, people just ignored that decision and installed planters anyway. Like the two female cops in this story, no city official wants to be seen removing a healthy tree.

    There was a controversy in 2012 when new planters were placed on the north side of Prince Street between Mercer and Greene, both to green it but to block the street peddlers. The peddlers ruthlessly moved them out of “their” spot on the sidewalk and called Dept. of Transportation, which issued violations, for blocking sidewalks. Yet, DOT permits planters around the city, mostly in front of government buildings, “in order to thwart terrorists.”

    However, contradicting itself, one rationale for DOT not issuing planter permits to the rest of us is that DOT foolishly claims that terrorists could use the tree planters to hide bombs, as if a terrorist wants to blow up some resident passing by or walking a dog on Wooster Street.

    It is amazing our neighborhood has ever flourished when we have to deal with such pinhead bureaucrats.

  3. southvillageneighbors Says:

    So sorry for your tree-loss! Over in the South Village (at 180 Sixth near Vandam) we lost a beautiful plum tree when “SoHo Love Corp” tore down the four-story 19th-century tenement on that lot in 2007. We still miss its dazzling color, especially this time of year.

  4. g Says:

    I have mixed feelings about this – first, it is undeniable that the trees are lovely and add beauty to the city.

    But the wrong tree in the wrong place is a terrible mistake. As the post points out, the trees’ roots were threatening the integrity of the building’s foundation, and the breaking branches were posing a danger. Tree maintenance is extremely expensive, so today’s urban arborists choose street trees for their ability to integrate in an urban setting.

    Where I live in Southern California, our small city was planted in the ’30s and ’40s with some beautiful exotic trees that are, unfortunately, sidewalk heavers and sewer-cloggers now, 50 years out. We have a boulevard planted with huge, gorgeous, stately coral trees – which split their trunks and come crashing down on unsuspecting joggers on a regular basis.

    Sean Sweeney’s story about the battling bureaucrats is pretty funny, though!

    • Sean Sweeney Says:

      “Sweeney’s story about the battling bureaucrats is pretty funny, though!”

      Thanks, g.

      Something I neglected to add regarding our efforts to get street trees legalized in SoHo is that, subsequent to the NY Times front-page story on our struggle, there were several Letters to the Editor on the subject, both pro and con – the opposition letters coming mostly from misguided preservationists who wanted to keep SoHo preserved in amber.

      However, one letter strongly opposing trees here came from Washington, DC, a city known for its lovely cherry trees. The letter was from the head of the US National Forest Service no less, who argued that trees were inappropriate in SoHo!

      So, here we had the guy whose job is to oversee the protection of trees throughout the US arguing against their presence here in SoHo.

      Again, it is not easy dealing with pinhead bureaucrats.

  5. Jaime Gutierrez Says:

    Hi all:
    I am just an observer, but these particular trees seem to me, were historic trees, as they were planted by George Maciunas. From what I read about this incident he planted them for a very special purpose. I am surprised that Mr Maciunas is not more celebrated in SoHo. There should be a George Maciunas Day for sure!

  6. Georgia Says:

    As an urban forester by training I understand the right tree in the right place protocol but as a neighborhoodophile and plant lover, I wish there had been a way to preserve the legacy of these trees. Do you know if anyone saved any of the wood?

  7. Roslyn Bernstein Says:

    We saved a branch of one of George Maciunas’s trees. Preserving SoHo history!

  8. Andrew Says:

    This is the guy who put those trees in.

  9. On two Trees/ Jonas Mekas | ArtBlog Says:

    […] You can read Mekas’ description of a 1967 autumn night of criminal urban guerilla gardening. But you can also hear the director, who never lost his strongly accented english,  talk about it in an interview.  Then imagine it should you get the chance to walk down Wooster street where he and George Macunias illegally planted the Ailanthus. […]

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