"My Secret City" is a collaboration between CityLab and Narratively, a digital publication featuring extraordinary stories of ordinary people, told through video, text, photo essays, comics journalism and more.
In 1967, an aging Marianne Moore wrote a poem to help save a Brooklyn tree. With a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award to her name, the septuagenarian had attained an improbable height for a modernist poet: public popularity. Newspapers regularly pictured her in an anachronistic black cape and velvet tricorn hat; the following year she was even invited to throw out the opening pitch for the Yankees. So it was perhaps no surprise that when the recently-formed Friends of Prospect Park in Brooklyn noticed a rare camperdown elm near the Boathouse that was “a mere shell, hollow to the base, and further weakened by a great untreated wound,” they asked her for a poem.
Moore penned “The Camperdown Elm,” which appeared in the September 23, 1967 issue of the New Yorker. Its last line was a call to action: “We must save it. It is our crowning curio.” The camperdown campaign was a success, not just to patch the tree and prop up its eldritch limbs with crutches and cords, but to improve visibility for the deteriorated park around it. The elm was the first tree here that made me stop in my tracks, study the bends in its unique branches, and consider it as an individual. It was also my gateway into an ecological scavenger hunt of New York City, where almost every tree is seeded in a human story.
And yes, New York City, famed for its grit and concrete and congestion, does have a lot of trees. The parks, streets, cemeteries, traffic medians, overlooked islands lodged in the East River, even the abandoned buildings, have trees. Some are native, some invasive. There are memorial trees, landmarked trees, community garden trees, palms looming in glassy lobbies, horse chestnuts from Anne Frank's house, cherry trees shipped from Japan a century ago, weeping beeches whose branches you can part and enter like a veil. And then, there are the Great Trees.
The camperdown elm is ranked with over 60 honored arbors on the official “Great Trees of New York City” list. As NYC Parks explains, “In 1985, the city embarked on its first Great Tree Search, seeking nominations from citizens in each borough for trees of unusual size, species, form, or historical association. The heritage trees that were selected best represent the diversity and scale of New York City's urban forest.” As this list was formed the year I was born, it is a bit dated, losing some members along the way (like the pendent silver linden in the Bronx's Woodlawn Cemetery, toppled in 2012’s Superstorm Sandy). It also has omissions; the "Survivor Tree" at Ground Zero would no doubt be featured if the list was made today. Some inclusions are oddities — the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Caucasian wingnut, a West Asian tree with a silly name, has a serious trunk over 120 inches in diameter; others are historic, such as the weathered horse chestnuts at the 18th-century Van Cortlandt House in the Bronx. Many are beloved neighborhood residents, like a cedar of Lebanon that stretches its umbrella of branches over a swing set in Flushing, Queens.
After encountering the Camperdown elm by chance, I decided to track down these Great Trees. Initially it was an excuse to explore unfamiliar parts of the city, and to experience familiar ones with a new perspective. I’ve lived in New York since 2009, and navigated its cartography through walking its cemeteries, finding its rare monuments to women, and looking down to discover its manhole cover designs, yet I’d never paid much attention to its biodiversity. I overlooked the fact that this biodiversity was just as rich with cultural narratives. Handily, NYC Parks keeps an online map of the Great Trees, with recent photographs and details about their locations, so even a newbie like me who is by no means an identification expert can recognize them.
To keep track of my tree travel, I started a Great Trees of NYC blog, where I continue to post research, writing and photographs. Beginning in the summer of 2015, I used the long daylight after work to take detours to a nearly 100-foot-tall English elm in Prospect Park, or an American elm bursting over the two-story homes in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge. As fall descended with its reduced sun, I used weekends to trek to destinations more distant from my Brooklyn home, like Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, Queens, where two American beeches planted in the early 1900s by photographer and reformer Jacob Riis rise above his wife's modest grave. A rosary was gently dangling from the beech’s trunk, one of the many moments when I suddenly felt like I was following someone else’s footsteps.
I witnessed the erroneously-named “hangman’s elm” in Washington Square Park (which, at over 300 years old, has an ominous presence, but never played any part in an execution), circled by squirrels that tourists were eager to feed; and an impressive sugar maple with three dueling trunks at Wave Hill in the Bronx. I found the trees as diverse as the five boroughs, representing their own vibrant community of immigrants and well-rooted locals.
The first time I sought out Brooklyn Heights’ dawn redwood, I missed it. The “living fossil” was presumed extinct until it was rediscovered in the 1940s in an isolated Chinese valley. Some of its seeds arrived in 1948 in Boston; some of the original plantings are still growing at Harvard's Arnold Arboretum. Soon, it was a popular ornamental tree around the world, including in New York. One soars over the city's first community garden, the 1973 Liz Christy Garden in Manhattan, and in Brooklyn Heights, where I walked down Willow Street, waiting for some colossus to interrupt the red brick Federal architecture. But I got to the road’s cacophonous turn by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, having only noticed more humble oaks and maples. Backtracking, I realized I hadn’t looked high enough, as a sturdy, but not gargantuan, trunk of the dawn redwood rose over 100 feet into the air next to a diminutive carriage house (which, I later read in the AIA Guide to New York City, is believed to be part of the underground railroad). It was incredible to have missed something so tall, and how it managed to stand so unobtrusively in a dense residential area. Planting a tree that’s been known to reach 160 feet may seem illogical for such a block, yet the ancient species is a natural for cities, growing fast and soaring straight up without any wild branches, a skyscraper of trees.
Meanwhile another “living fossil,” the ginkgo, is an unexpectedly flexible urban tree. There are thousands thriving in New York, but one that has achieved “Great” status is in Inwood’s Isham Park. It was nearly lost in the 1970s due to soil erosion, vandalism and neglect, with the local Inwood Civic Council rallying for its protection. In autumn, its leaves turn bright yellow and fall at once on the sidewalk below. I saw the tree in July when it was still green, its long, straight branches stretching above a sidewalk from where it perches on an elevated area of the park's southeast corner. I was underwhelmed when approaching it from within the park, and only after crossing the street and viewing it from afar did it appear like a burst of frenzied life compared to the smaller trees around it.
Often, though, I encountered ghosts of New Yorkers past rather than just trees. Surely the first species to bore the beginning tree scout is the London plane tree: After I learned to recognize its pale, mottled bark and maple-esque leaves, I noticed it absolutely everywhere, from Bryant Park to Central Park, and all blocks in between. I found that the name actually has nothing to do with the English capital, and is a hybrid of the American sycamore and the Oriental plane. And the numbers made even more sense when I found out that NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses had been a huge fan of the hardy pollution-tolerant specimen as he made his mark on almost every corner of the five boroughs. They now comprise around 15 percent of street trees.
In Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, I found a lush magnolia flowering above the brownstones, its trunk caged in by scaffolding on my summer visit, its waxy leaves resting on the metal bars. It’s worth noting that at no point in my project has anyone ever asked why I was staring for many minutes at a tree, taking photographs, scratching notes. But someone did notice this tree decades ago when it was threatened by development. Just beside the tree is a mural of her — activist Hattie Carthan — smiling, faded painted leaves above her head as she rises from a planter, growing like a tree, a magnolia flower pinned to her blue blouse. In 1970, the magnolia was declared a living landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, after she’d led the charge to preserve it against encroaching development. “Save a tree, save a neighborhood,” was the motto of her Magnolia Tree Earth Center, which still operates today.
Then there are the survivors of the Dutch elm disease that killed an estimated 77 million American elms between the 1930s and ‘80s. On an evening of fading summer light, I watched a red-tailed hawk perch on the gnarled bark of two entwined American elms that cling to a rocky outcropping in Central Park, their branches stretching up like the arms of Goya’s witches. They’re on the edge of a copse lining the Central Park Mall, and are thought to be the world’s largest grove of American elms.
Many human lifetimes may span the life of the tree, and maybe that makes them feel present as city elders. In Flushing, behind the 1785 Kingsland Homestead, is a ring of weeping beeches, descended from the tree that gives Weeping Beech Park its name. On a balmy afternoon, I stepped below their long boughs into the shade, where the sunlight streamed through papery leaves. Once a 151-year-old weeping beech stood at the center of this circle, the city’s first living landmark, recognized in 1966. Brought to Queens from Belgium by Samuel Parsons, who introduced numerous exotic trees to New York City and subsequently the rest of the United States, it’s believed all weeping beeches in the United States descend from that tree. In 1998, it was cut down after attempts to revive it had failed, and was given a full funeral, with Parks Commissioner Henry Stern telling the New York Daily News, “This is the vegetable equivalent of an Egyptian pharaoh going into his sarcophagus surrounded by his adoring little offshoots.”
I have not checked every site off the Great Trees list (I’m just over 40 as of this writing), although the goal wasn’t to get to all of them, but to see the city differently. And that’s happened, even in familiar greenspaces like Central Park so lush with trees they can become indistinct. There, you can find the Arthur Ross Pinetum with about 600 pine trees. Staying green year-round, its pathways are busy no matter the season, with people reading books beneath the towering Himalayan pines, or unleashing dogs who run around clusters of conifers. On a small rock is a plaque that reads: “This Pinetum: A Gift to the City from an Interested Citizen,” a simple sentiment that could accompany any of these great New York City trees, each one maintained, loved, and saved by people who just took an interest.