Planting Civil Rights

Street tree plant-ins in New York City.

By Sonja Dümpelmann

BEDIT_Back-UrbanTrees_02_SD_LAM_Burchardt_What Are We Going To Do_1973_p14_1
White characters in What Are We Going to Do, Michael? (1973) tell the story of African American activist Hattie Carthan’s fight to save a southern magnolia tree.

In the 1973 children’s story What Are We Going to Do, Michael? 10-year-old Michael, together with his neighbor Mrs. Jacobson, helps to save an 80-year-old southern magnolia tree that is threatened with being cut down to make way for an urban renewal project in their neighborhood. Nellie Burchardt’s story is based upon true facts and events that occurred in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Yet, the way in which Burchardt portrays Michael and Mrs. Jacobson belies parts of the true story. In the children’s book, the two protagonists appear as white residents of a run-down, racially diverse neighborhood. In reality, Mrs. Jacobson was Hattie Carthan, an African American woman in her 70s living on a deteriorating neighborhood block in Bedford-Stuyvesant. By 1970, Bedford-Stuyvesant had become one of the largest African American communities in the United States, and, as Harold X. Connolly wrote in 1977, “a code word…for America’s unresolved urban and race problems.” It is unclear whether Burchardt’s choice to change the race of her protagonists had anything to do with the sales or readership aspirations for the book, or with the more idealist educational and egalitarian aspirations to cultivate white children’s empathy and awareness of nature in the city and of its ethnically and racially diverse citizenry, or, in turn, even with an unabashed racism. In any case the choice of the story itself as well as the changes made to its principal characters reflect the social concerns and anxieties of the time.

BEDIT_Back-UrbanTrees_03_SD_LAM_HERZ_0295 copy
A southern magnolia tree on Lafayette Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, February 1970.

But changing the race of the principal characters—while perhaps making the story more accessible to the anticipated majority of readers—also covered up one of the most important facts about it: By rallying for the protection of the southern magnolia, successfully saving it and the three historic brownstone buildings behind it, and by founding and running the Neighborhood Tree Corps for the planting and maintenance of neighborhood street trees, African American citizens of Bedford-Stuyvesant turned trees into a means of empowerment and emancipation within the civil rights movement. While the planting, maintenance, and conservation of trees became a grassroots initiative of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s African American citizens to assert their rights to the city and to its spaces in general, the tree-planting and conservation activities provided the most vulnerable and powerless groups in particular—women and children—with a way to make themselves heard and seen. Tree planting and “plant-ins” became their tool of community building as well as a civil right that could be used against ghettoization. Thus, the events leading up to the magnolia tree’s landmark designation in 1970, the implementation of the Neighborhood Tree Corps in 1971, and finally the foundation of the Magnolia Tree Earth Center in 1973 as a not-for-profit educational institution in the brownstone buildings sheltering the magnolia tree illustrate grassroots initiatives for the planting, care, and protection of trees that stood squarely within the civil rights, environmental, and women’s movements of the time.

Carthan, described in a 1979 Daily News article as “the matriarch of [Bedford-Stuyvesant’s] greening movement,” assumed her leadership position spontaneously in 1964, the first year of the civil rights riots in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The riots were a response to the shooting of a 15-year-old African American by a police officer. They exacerbated a situation Carthan had long been observing: Many streets had turned from safe, tree-lined havens into rat-infested slums littered with trash. It had become unsafe to go outside. “Air mail”—the residents’ description of garbage sailing out of open windows—often failed to reach the trash bins that landlords and the Department of Sanitation provided in too few numbers, and it littered the streets.

To alleviate the situation, in 1964 Carthan, together with seven neighbors, formed the T&T Vernon Block Association. By gearing the first block association’s activities toward the planting of trees, Carthan responded to the lack of trees that was perceived by many inhabitants in Bedford-Stuyvesant at the time. Carthan’s block association’s modest beginnings consisted of a first fund-raising event that brought in money to buy four trees. In 1966, a visit by Mayor John Lindsay to the association’s fund-raising barbecue finally brought the necessary attention and publicity, leading to the implementation of the tree matching program by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation: For every four trees that a block association planted, it would receive six additional ones from the city. By 1970, almost 100 block associations had been formed and more than 1,500 ginkgo, sycamore, and honey locust trees—species that were resilient and adaptive to urban environments—had been planted in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

BEDIT_Back-UrbanTrees_05_SD_LAM_Bedford-Stuyvesant Neighborhood Tree Corps_1970s_3 copy
The Neighborhood Tree Corps cared for Bedford-Stuyvesant’s street trees in the early 1970s.

With the help of a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts in 1971, Carthan and the members of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Beautification Committee were able to turn the tree planting initiatives into opportunities to teach young people in the neighborhood about nature. The Neighborhood Tree Corps consisted of up to 30 children between nine and 16 years old, who attended classes on tree care and gardening, cared for the community’s street trees, and in return received a modest stipend. On multiple levels, tree planting had become a key tool of neighborhood transformation. The founding motto of the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, fittingly, was “Save a Tree, Save a Neighborhood!” Carthan’s project was tangible and direct, and it was started by someone who actually lived in the spaces that were in need of attention and transformation. Tree planting was a creative and constructive activity that could, its initiators certainly hoped, replace the impoverished neighborhood’s more common hostility and alienation. It had immediate aesthetic and spatial impact and could be carried out by the citizens directly. While based upon intrinsic values that were implicit in the planting activities themselves—neighborhood improvement, nature education, community building, and mutual social support—the tree plantings were also representational. Thus, among the things distinguishing the tree planting activities from other civil rights initiatives were not only their grassroots do-it-yourself and self-help character, but their aesthetic. Trees made a difference, in a visual and spatial sense as well as in the more ephemeral atmospheric sense that includes their ability to change the microclimate. Trees could fill the visual and phenomenological gap between top-down policies and the actual experience in the neighborhood. Not only was tree planting an act of community building that could turn the neighborhood into a healthier and more sociable place, but it left a tangible result and made the neighborhood look and feel different. It could give the neighborhood a new identity while at the same time recognizing that the street had been and could be a community social space.

BEDIT_Back-UrbanTrees_06_SD_LAM_IMG_1499 copy
The Neighborhood Tree Corps in Bedford-Stuyvesant, 1970s.

It was this aesthetic and representational aspect of the tree-planting campaigns that complemented, if not to a certain extent even countered, federal programs such as the Model Cities Program of the time, which was directed toward rehabilitating the inner city and modernizing its fabric. Indeed, Carthan’s campaign to save the southern magnolia meant that the initial design for a new Model Cities development in the area had to be altered so that the tree and its three sheltering brownstone buildings could ultimately be preserved. In the battle for the southern magnolia’s protection, the unique physical character traits of its neighborhood stood against the unifying and standardized designs of the Model Cities program. Through the Neighborhood Tree Corps, the grassroots Magnolia Tree preservation campaign became quite literally a “tree-roots” initiative that carried the same values forward into the neighborhood.

The time when Hattie Carthan began her project was ripe with similar activities throughout the city, and it inspired emulation. Whereas Carthan’s was bottom-up, led by her and other women who succeeded in obtaining governmental support, most activities were top-down, city-sponsored, and led by government officials. For example, the New York City Housing Authority began sponsoring a summer garden contest among its 600,000 public-housing tenants in 1963. On a national level, as well, tree-planting initiatives soon figured prominently in the First Lady’s beautification campaign that followed the May 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty. In fact, among the initiatives for the beautification of the national capital in 1967, Lady Bird Johnson stressed the planting of new street trees, especially in poorer neighborhoods.

In Harlem in the early 1970s, Anthony V. Bouza, a police officer then commanding Harlem’s police force, was appalled by the “nakedness of the streets.” Realizing the potential of trees, he began his own tree planting campaign, mobilizing Harlem’s neighborhood children as well as the New York City Parks Department, which had abandoned the area out of fear.

These governmental efforts were sustained by what sociologists had identified at the time as the needs of distressed urban areas: stimulation that could break the monotony of everyday life, a sense of community that could grow out of spontaneous activities, and identification with and participatory control over the environment. Implicit in the recommendations was the argument sustained by psychologists such as Kenneth Clark and Isidor Chein that environmental conditions and their aesthetic expressions played a role in determining an individual’s reactions and behavior. Sociologists’ recognition that impoverished residents treated streets not only as pathways, but as a place that functioned as an extension of the indoors, brought the concept of “territorial space” to the forefront of studies in sociology and psychology in the 1960s and 1970s. While these study results and theories formulated what activists such as Hattie Carthan were already acting upon, they also gave environmental and social activists like Charles E. Little a theoretical and empirical basis for their demands for more egalitarian open-space policies. Furthermore, these ideas induced designers like Oscar Newman, author of Defensible Space (1972), to develop guidelines for how design could facilitate residents’ territorial identification with the areas surrounding their homes and reduce crime. While it was clear to activists like Little that all people, regardless of their race or ethnicity, needed open space and trees, the use of trees in the design of what Newman called “defensible space” was more ambiguous. On the one hand, trees were an amenity that could reinforce the residents’ claim to territory and increase their identification with and care of the environment. On the other hand, trees and shrubs could also heighten the sense of insecurity by blocking views.

retouched from CDN CD#204
Three schoolgirls plant a tree on Arbor Day at Chicago’s McAllister School while other children watch from beyond a fence, April 1915.

The view of trees and natural areas as positive has not been homogenous, and people’s varying experiences based upon their respective race and gender have been an important factor in differing perceptions. Since the 1970s, studies by social scientists have argued that trees can deter crime and that people associate areas with street tree plantings with lower crime rates. Yet, studies in the 1980s also provided evidence that in particular African American residents often associated more densely vegetated and wooded areas with fears of physical danger. However, studies of past but also more recent community tree planting projects like MillionTreesNYC have confirmed that these projects have a positive impact on community building, enhancing a community’s and people’s individual sense of identity. While many studies have attested that people in general derive psychological and physiological benefits from trees, it has taken longer—until the early 1990s—for researchers to show that socioeconomic and political factors play a role in the uneven distribution of street trees in the city.

The observations and results of these studies hardly come as a surprise. The association of street trees with civic engagement, social work, and activism as well as with the emancipation and empowerment of women, children, and African Americans, has precedents that go back to the 19th century. Both the early village improvement societies that promoted street tree planting in New England towns and the first Arbor Day celebrations that began in 1872 in Nebraska and have since become a ritual throughout the country and in many countries abroad are examples of early urban tree stewardship and civic engagement that have contributed to creating the foundations of urban forestry in this country. In cities throughout the United States, Arbor Day planting activities were used not only for the nature education of children but also to contribute to the planting of the city’s streets. For example, in the 1910s, at a time when few cities appropriated sufficient funds for city forestry, Chicago’s newly installed city forester, Jacob H. Prost, made use of the Arbor Day activism in the city’s public schools to initiate the “penny tree” campaign. This campaign sold trees to schoolchildren for one cent each and encouraged them to plant the trees in front of their homes. In these early days of Chicago’s institutionalized urban forestry, the “penny tree” campaign contributed significantly to the city’s afforestation.

The village improvement societies were often led by women who initiated the planting of trees along streets to provide shade and beauty. Street trees have figured prominently in women’s engagement with the city. Tree planting, care, and stewardship have provided them with a means and symbol of empowerment, emancipation, and even resistance. However, although many women found their calling and were able to enter the public sphere through various tree planting campaigns, the latter were most often directed toward the privileged parts of society.

In contrast, tree-planting activities that were specifically geared toward some of the most disenfranchised groups began during the Progressive Era in New York City with the activities of the 1902 Tenement Shade Tree Committee, a subgroup of the Tree Planting Association founded five years earlier in 1897. The committee’s members included many illustrious industrialists and financiers such as John D. Crimmins and Robert Fulton Cutting, and notable social reformers and philanthropists like Lawrence Veiller, Archibald Alexander Hill, the Reverend David H. Greer, Abram S. Hewitt, Ellin Prince Speyer, and Edith Carpenter Macy.

Most of the city’s streets lacked trees at the time, but the situation was particularly tenuous in the densely populated and disease-struck tenement districts. It was in the tenements that in the 1870s noted physician and later president of the Tree Planting Association Stephen Smith had observed during the hot summer months the largest number of deaths from what was then considered “foul air” thought to cause “diarrheal diseases.” Smith and other tree advocates argued that the tenement districts were the city’s areas where shade trees casting shadow and cooling the air could provide the most benefit. At the time trees were seen as air “disinfectant” and “self-acting sanitarium.” They were still widely understood to prevent the spread of miasma, or “mal aria”—bad air, instead producing “health-giving oxygen.” Smith therefore suggested that the city’s avenues be lined with trees, extending their “cooling and health-giving influence” into the residential districts and in particular the tenements.

BEDIT_Back-UrbanTrees_10_SD_LAM_Tree Planting Association_1903-4_Page_23 copy
An early achievement of the Tenement Shade Tree Committee was the planting of street trees along East 39th Street.

The trees’ positive influence was also noted by Jacob Riis, who famously captured the conditions of the tenement districts in his photographs and books. Rather than focusing on the trees’ public health function, however, Riis was quoted in 1905 emphasizing their edifying and educational role in the livelihoods of the poor and their children: “Let us have the trees, and the nearer the homes of the poor the better; as they grow good citizenship will grow with them.” To encourage tree care and prevent vandalism, each of the trees planted by the Tenement Shade Tree Committee bore a small enameled sign stating: “This tree is a gift to all children. Be its friend.”

The last Mulberry -- said to be one of the old trees -- in yard
One of the few photographs in which Jacob Riis focused his camera on a tree shows one of the last trees remaining in the Mulberry Bend tenement area in New York.

Regardless of whether tree-planting initiatives were begun as grassroots actions by those immediately affected, as in the case of Hattie Carthan in 1960s Bedford-Stuyvesant; as a presidential campaign initiated by Lady Bird Johnson in these same years in Washington, D.C.; or as public health and social reform as in the case of the Tenement Shade Tree Committee in the early 20th century, in all cases the activities ultimately came to be based upon a hybrid of bottom-up and top-down, and of private and public initiatives that could support each other. Street trees occupied both a figurative and spatial ground in between the private and public spheres and created space for the negotiation of power. From the beginning, in many U.S. cities, private persons were encouraged to plant their own street trees on public ground within a particular regulatory framework established by the respective city government. Contrary to the frequently voiced opinion that landscape design and design in general are luxurious afterthoughts, these initiatives show that landscape, especially in times of crisis, can be more than an afterthought and that landscape can be a means and method of encouraging both public and private activism in the spirit of civil rights.

Sonja Dümpelmann is a landscape historian and associate professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. She is currently writing a book on the history of street tree planting and urban forestry.

Credits: What Are We Going to Do, Michael? illustrations, What Are We Going to Do, Michael? By Nellie Burchardt, (C) 1973 Franklin Watts, Inc.; Bedford-Stuyvesant southern magnolia, Brooklyn Public Library—Brooklyn Collection; Neighborhood Tree Corps kids with pails and garden tools, Joan Edwards, Caring for Trees on City Streets (New York: Scribner, 1975) (C) Magnolia Tree Earth Center; Neighborhood Tree Corps kid watering tree, Brochure (C) Magnolia Tree Earth Center, Brooklyn Public Library—Brooklyn Collection; Chicago schoolgirls, Chicago History Museum, DN-0064349; East 39th Street, Tree Planting Association of New York City, Annual Report 1903; Jacob Riis photograph, Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

4 thoughts on “Planting Civil Rights”

Leave a Reply