Honoring the street trees of New York City and their citizen pruners, who have been saving the trees since 1977.
Street trees are critical assets and beloved members of urban communities around the world. New York City is home to nearly 700,000 and each one has a unique relationship with its surroundings. Little attention is paid to street trees as photographic subjects because they are rarely “prime” specimens. Each tree bares the damage and scars from endless construction work, scaffolding, garbage truck impacts, dog pee, soil compaction, extreme temperatures, vandalism, and a host of other surprises. And they are certainly not exempt from storms, droughts, invasive insects, or blights. Yet they survive. Sometimes they even thrive.
A photographic study of street trees would not be complete without acknowledging (and featuring) the countless acts of stewardship happening all over the city. People take care of these trees. They build guards out of available materials. They garden in the surrounding tree beds. They clean up litter and try to encourage the neighborhood dogs to do their business elsewhere. And they become citizen pruners. Since 1977 thousands of New Yorkers have become card-carrying citizen pruners—a program by Trees New York that trains volunteers in tree care, biology, identification, and pruning—allowing them to legally prune street trees in the city.
I became a citizen pruner before starting this photography project. On a practical level I wanted to prune the street trees in my neighborhood in the Bronx. On an artistic level I hoped to better understand the mechanics of tree care. Now when I see a tree I can read a history of care in its visible cuts, identify blights, and flag problems that might be killing it. I understand that in a neighborhood a tree is also a place.
Tree Love: Street Trees and Stewardship in New York City is a portrait of urban street trees and the spontaneous acts of stewardship found in tree beds. To create the series I walked hundreds of miles through almost every neighborhood in the five boroughs. Block after block, I was spurred on by each new instance of people caring for trees. Old growth, self-planted, stunted, scarred, broken, coppiced, blighted, blight-resistant, rare, over-pruned… each tree exhibits time and circumstance in its own way.
A small red plum tree leans precariously over a curved sidewalk in Woodlawn, Bronx. A much larger street tree must have grown here when the path was initially laid down. Someone cared enough for this tree to cut a two-by-four to the exact size and prop it under the tree. It is a small gesture, but it might help.
A cast-off box is repurposed into a makeshift tree guard and secured with silver duct tape. It will prevent dogs from peeing on the trunk of the tree until it falls apart in the rain. Once it falls apart the nearby shopkeeper will replace it with a fresh box. Care is not always aesthetic.
Dawn redwood trees are not common street trees but they are proving hardier than anyone had imagined. This specific redwood happens to be my favorite street tree in New York City. It grows on 16th Street near Union Square in Manhattan and has survived scaffolding from every direction. The six-story tree grows out of a three-by-two foot opening in the sidewalk and in this tiny space someone has planted tulips.
Lichen and moss cover the trunk of this amazing American elm growing in the West Village. Somehow this elm has survived and the ecosystem growing on the trunk is surely a sign that air and water quality have improved. The image has not been enhanced. It really is that green.
With the phrase “Tree Love” on my mind it was hard to not stop and marvel at these ailanthus trees kissing through a chain link fence in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The base of one tree is growing over the sidewalk so it has earned “street tree status” even though it was not planted by the city.
Ash trees are facing extinction in the region as the emerald ash borer beetle works its way east. However, this colossal ash growing in Old Howard Beach, Queens, has avoided detection. It is hard to tell in this winter view, but this tree is very much alive. The wires offer some sense of scale and are evidence that a negotiation between city agencies has taken place.
When a street tree does die it is rarely removed completely. The stump might be there for years. So why not plant a garden? Most New Yorkers are unaware that it is okay (and encouraged) to garden in tree beds. Often these gardens become quirky neighborhood icons like this one in Steinway, Queens.
I call this “The Lewis Elm” because it is on Lewis Street in Manhattan. It is a rebel. It grew on its own from a crack in the sidewalk at the edge of a parking lot under the Williamsburg Bridge. Nothing about this location seems amenable to an elm tree, but there it is—safe, protected, and unofficial. Personally, I think it deserves some honorary status or maybe its own festival.
The Black Liberation (or Pan-African) flag is represented by the colors of these ribbons fastened to a tulip poplar in Clifton, Staten Island. Many of the street trees along this route bare similar ribbons. All over the city I have seen how street trees become message boards for community members to pin or tape up signs, decorations, and flyers.
Space to garden will be found wherever it can be had and some tree beds overflow with flowers and shrubs. However, there is no street tree in this tree bed. It died years ago and has yet to be replaced. Until then someone in the community is gardening and has created an elaborate barrier from discarded items: a metal push cart, fishing rod, aluminum shelving, ribbon, and twine, not to mention a wooden spoon, plastic sword, telephone cord, and broom handle on the other side of the plot. While few are as elaborate as this, homemade guards made from repurposed items are one of my favorite things to find. Not far from here there is a tree guard made entirely from old skateboards.
The pink ribbon around the base of this ginkgo creates a web between the tree and the tree guard. Similar designs made from cords, thread, wire, and rope can be found all over the city. They are designed to be obstacle courses for any dog that might want to jump in and jump out. Dog waste is not fertilizer. These bright ribbons put a decorative flourish on the simmering fault line between tree lovers and dog owners.
Pruning a tree is an easy solution for a branch growing in the wrong direction. But very often residents will tie a branch back rather than sacrifice the limb. It can be hard to remove a branch from a tree when you’ve watched it grow from a sapling. This bright red cord is, I believe, the same filament used in weedwhackers.
And then you meet a street tree that is so huge that it seems impossible, like this silver maple in northeastern Queens. The subtle pastel colors of the bark mixed with the neon lichens are a reminder that trees offer beauty to pedestrians in so many ways. Was this tree here before most of the neighborhood was built? Silver maples, cottonwoods, and a few other species are on the do-not-plant list. Apparently, they grow too large too fast. But you find them from time to time.
Catalpas are something of a outlier as street trees. The size of this one in Wakefield, Bronx, surprised me but what I was really amazed at was the complex weave of wires moving through the spiraling treetop.
The Callery pear is no longer a favorite among urban horticulturalists, but they continue to grace us with some of the earliest blossoms of spring. This tree on St. Marks Place has lived through it all. The scars on the trunk exhibit ongoing impacts with city dump trucks. The small tree bed is stanchioned in bright orange because the adjacent block of old redbrick was recently torn down to make way for a taller, glossier addition to the neighborhood. The graffiti in the background takes on a deeper meaning when read through the arched boughs of a Callery pear tree that may not survive much longer.
Matthew López-Jensen lives and works in the Bronx and teaches at The New School and Fordham University. He is a Guggenheim Fellow in photography and his landscape-centric work has twice been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. His work can be found in a number of permanent collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, and Brooklyn Museum. He was a recent artist-in-residence at the NYC Urban Field Station and has been a resident at MacDowell, Wave Hill, Guild Hall, and LMCC. He has been published in Orion and his work has been written about in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and a range of other publications. His first monograph Park Wonder includes environmental writing by five authors connected to different landscapes in northern New Jersey. He received an MFA from the University of Connecticut and a BA from Rice University.