Permanent markers in stone are usually the flashpoints in controversies over memorials and the interpretations of history they inscribe in space. Rejecting their message requires monumental efforts — defacing, destroying, relocating. It’s a lot easier when the monument is a tree. A South Brooklyn maple once honored Confederate general Robert E. Lee; without its plaque, it’s just a source of shade. But the memorial trees scattered across New York City mark other passages as well. Below, Memory Loss series editor Francesca Johanson surveys the living, photosynthesizing testaments to intimate losses, remote wars, or destruction still to come. After photographing Confederate monuments in the crosshairs of the summer of 2020, Kris Graves focuses here on less conspicuous commemorations closer to home.
This essay is a part of “Memory Loss,” a series co-published with Guernica Magazine.
Just inside the north entrance of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park is a small grove of trees resembling a kind of experimental Eden. Lightly signposted, the grove is planted with creamy-white and yellow magnolias, Venus dogwoods, and paperbark maples. There’s also a Himalayan pine, witch hazel, and several red buckeyes. Among them is a young bur oak, which will probably outlive them all.
Between the trees, the groundcover grows wild. It was planted to attract pollinators to the park, but is still a work-in-progress, according to the park’s chief landscape architect, Christian Zimmerman, who designed the grove in collaboration with long-time Brooklyn resident and park donor Karen Burkhardt. Work began on the grove in the spring of 2013, not long after Hurricane Sandy had knocked down hundreds of trees in the park. Moved by the death of a towering oak near her favorite entrance, Burkhardt made a donation to Prospect Park Alliance — the park’s stewards — to replace it. With Zimmerman, she settled on the bur oak, a hardy, slow-growing tree with deep roots.
The planting marked the beginning of an intensely personal undertaking for Burkhardt: a living memorial to honor her partner’s long struggle with Parkinson’s. Informally known as Marilyn’s Grove, the plot has no clear borders or permanent signage, though the trees’ GPS coordinates are precisely logged by the Alliance. For Burkhardt, it is both an intimate space of personal remembrance and a public gesture — the restoration of a small section of the park for all to enjoy. Its creation was managed by the Alliance’s commemorative tree program, which was formalized in 1987 and is one of several in New York City that allow people to plant or adopt trees as memorials via endowments or donations. It is an important philanthropic revenue stream for Prospect Park, enabling the Alliance to fund the addition of new trees that aren’t covered by capital projects. The program brought in over $130,000 this past spring, funding the planting and maintenance of over 50 new trees.
The Alliance’s program adds to a shifting, largely unnoticed landscape of memorial trees in New York City. Each lignified memorial tells us something about how loss and trauma are experienced over time. But they also reveal how the figure of the tree is valued in the city’s wider economy, and by its different administrations. Along Eastern Parkway, hundreds of trees honoring World War I veterans have had an unstable history, transplanted and replaced as the Department of Transportation expanded the city’s subway system underneath. The fugitive trees — interchangeable to some, utterly special to others — highlight the precarity of investing memory in public spaces. There are, of course, some memorial trees endowed to outlast generations of people. The hidden, subterranean structures that irrigate, aerate, and monitor the World Trade Center’s Memorial Glade, designed by PWP Landscape Architecture, are spectacular feats of engineering, created to stave tree death off for as long as possible — which could be three centuries, for the swamp white oaks planted there.
New York City’s earliest mass plantings of memorial trees began shortly after World War I, spurred by feverish volunteer-led planting sessions, which were organized by groups such as the American Legion and the American Forestry Association. In 1922, an encomium celebrating the civic virtues of trees was published by the Association’s president Charles Lathrop Pack, in which he called out the memorial tree as a “form of expression . . . possible to everyone.” Its popularity, Pack wrote, was driven by its “unusual blend of practical benefit and sentimental appeal.” From shade to beautification to public remembrance, the Association encouraged the planting of memorial trees on highways across the country, which were then rapidly expanding after the passage of the Federal Aid Road Acts of 1916 and 1921. Mass memorial tree plantings were endorsed by President Warren Harding as both a testimony of gratitude to veterans and a means to beautify the new infrastructural landscape of American cities.
Despite this early wave of enthusiasm for tree tributes, many of the plantings were undone just as quickly. In November 1920, the New York Tribune reported that 1,250 bronze plaques, bearing the names Bronx servicemen, would be placed under linden trees along Grand Concourse. Described as a “memorial as everlasting as Nature itself,” the trees and their plaques barely saw the decade out. In 1928, the Council submitted plans to remove over half of the trees from their island plots on the Concourse to a grove in Pelham Bay Park to allow for the widening of the road and the construction of a subway underneath. A few years prior to the Concourse removal, 270 “Old World” sycamores commemorating WWI serviceman were similarly uprooted from Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn by the Parks Department in anticipation of subway construction. Placed along Eastern Parkway — which was renamed Memorial Parkway as part of the move — the trees were accompanied by the 1,100 new American Elms. Shortly after the elms were planted, an indignant Brooklynite lamented that uncontained oil and grease from a nearby gas station had already killed many, and that the builders of a second gas station had unscrupulously dug up several others.
Today, the elms have all but disappeared from Eastern Parkway, victims of the malignant Dutch Elm disease, ongoing construction, subway pollutants, and a host of other dangers (old age, too, has been a factor). The original plaques, however, can still be seen in some spots. Many were re-installed in 2005 after decades in the Parks Department’s Art and Antiquities storage facilities, where they were kept, carefully alphabetized, in the event of inquiries about particular servicemen. The plaques were cemented at the base of a set of new trees between Plaza Street East and Washington Ave as part of Mayor Bloomberg’s $5.9 million restoration of the parkway, which was developed with Prospect Park Alliance. Instead of elms, or their cultivars, which still carry some risk of Dutch Elm disease, hackberries and a smattering of other Parks Department-prescribed species were planted — tougher street trees that may aspire to a longer life on the highly trafficked parkway.
And while so many memorial trees have been muted or replaced, for reasons good and bad, only recently has a new sort of tree memorial has appeared — a memorial for the trees themselves. In Lower Manhattan’s East River Park, hemmed in by the FDR, several mature oaks mark the coastline. They look out over the river with unobstructed views of Brooklyn. There are over 1,000 mature trees spanning the length of the 57.5-acre park, which curls around the island’s south-eastern corner and spans both sides of the Williamsburg Bridge. In the summer of 2019, someone wrapped a note around an oak near the newly renovated East River Park amphitheatre: “I survived Sandy, but I won’t survive NYC’s plan for me.” A few months later, a cardboard tombstone was planted in the park that read, “RIP – Bury The Plan, Not the Park.” The messages were endorsed by the East River Park Action (ERPA), a grassroots collective fighting the City’s East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, which will remove the trees in stages and bury the park under eight feet of fill (it’s unclear what exactly the fill will be). The plan is to enclose a sea-wall underneath the fill as a mitigation measure to protect the low-lying area from future flooding, which is increasing in severity from climate change. According to the Parks Department, on top of the raised park, a new one will be built with 2,000 trees, sport facilities, and an additional 1,000 trees planted in surrounding neighborhoods.
The flood mitigation plan has divided local residents. Some argue their participation in developing the current plan was negligible, and after decades of meticulously tending the park’s trees, via initiatives like the Lower East Side Ecology Center, they would prefer to see the park saved at all costs, or the FDR buried instead. Others, including many NYCHA tenants, who live in developments right on the water’s edge and experienced the worst of superstorm Sandy, are supportive of a flood-mitigation plan that will be built the fastest. A date has not been set for the trees’ removal, but the city is moving forward with a staged plan to bury the park over the next three years. The memorialization of trees by ERPA supporters inverts the function of a traditional memorial tree, which typically stands in memory of a bygone place or individual. But the violence of environmental climate change, both slow and abrupt, is disrupting conventional timelines. Artist Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest installation — forty-nine towering, dead cedar trees in Madison Square — is a protest memorial of a different kind, a forest constructed to overwhelm, and haunt, visitors with the scale of climate change’s devastation. In both East River Park and Madison Square, the memorialization of trees is making legible climate calamities of the present and near future.
Rarely is there unison between the original symbolism vested in a memorial by its makers, and the values and beliefs of residents, which change unevenly over time. The city’s stone and bronze monuments, and its street names, too, are entangled in an ongoing national conversation about structural racism. Sometimes, so are its trees. A few blocks from Fort Hamilton, in the front yard of a 19th century former Episcopal church, a healthy maple tree rises behind a small iron fence, its canopy shading the sidewalk. St John’s Episcopal Church was originally built in 1834 by soldiers at Fort Hamilton, and was frequented by Robert E. Lee, then still an engineer in the US Army, who was stationed there in the 1840s. The tree that stood before the maple was allegedly planted by General Lee himself, according to a plaque installed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1912. It was the UDC who, in 1935, planted the tree that grows there now, after the older one had died.
Its memorialization in the 1910s overlapped with a broader push to pay tribute to Confederate figures across the nation, a manifestation of a resurgent white supremacist narrative valorizing the Confederacy. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the biggest spike in Confederate monument construction was 1911, one year prior to the installation of the plaque to General Lee. In contrast to the city’s grandiose equestrian statuary memorializing Union troops at iconic locations such as Grand Army Plaza and Union Square, the tree was an inconspicuous way of adding a Confederate tribute that otherwise might not have flown. Indeed, for over eighty years both the tree and plaque aged without disturbance, conspiring in a quiet way to uphold a privileged narrative of white supremacy.
In August 2017, immediately after the “Unite the Right” rally (which was sparked by the proposed removal of a statue of Lee in Charlottesville), the Episcopal Church removed the Confederate plaque, leaving only its iron scaffolding, and the maple tree itself. Today, the former church has a new owner: the Fort Hamilton Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, which runs a community center on the old site. The tree and its scaffolding are now vanishing into a different landscape, which belies a much larger struggle for justice.
As a vessel for ecological restoration, Prospect Park’s tree program has been widely successful. Over the past seven years, staff have developed a new pricing scale to meet growing demand with commemorative tree and grove options now ranging from $75 to $10,000. Sponsoring or endowing memorial trees is increasingly common across the city. In addition to the Alliance, organizations such as New York Restoration Project, Fort Tryon Park Trust, and the Central Park Conservancy run commemorative tree programs as do gardens such as Wave Hill in the Bronx. Most avoid plaques on trees, though for major donors the Central Park Conservancy affixes names to nearby boulders, while smaller donors receive pavestones away from endowed trees. Taken together, these programs point to an effort by New Yorkers to mark death or loss with an act of renewal or restoration — an act which is at once infraordinary and incredibly charged.
The significance of the Alliance’s program is not lost on Zimmerman, who says that “it is one of the most intimate and moving tasks that we do.” Still, striking a balance between staking out space for private mourning in a public park is delicate. The Alliance erects a temporary fence and sign for one to two years around new commemorative trees, which doubles as promotion for the program and protection. Staff are very upfront with donors about potential damage to their trees, reminding them that they have chosen an urban park. Sometimes complaints come in about kids climbing them — it’s against park rules, but the Alliance finds the prohibition hard to enforce. They try to counterbalance this with education online, and through face-to-face interactions, rather than signposts and demarcations.
While Prospect Park donors request permanent markers under their trees from time to time, Zimmerman’s response is that that isn’t what the park was for: “We’re not an arboretum. We’re not a cemetery.” Burkhardt shares the program’s ethos.
“Many people will not know the story behind [Marilyn’s Grove]. It’s not an official park name. And people need to understand that. You can’t go in and privatize a certain part of the park.”
Whether cherished or condemned, commemorative trees are not sentinels standing guard over the city’s memories. They are temporary anchors in a shifting landscape, no less mortal than the individuals they commemorate. But commemorate they do, and it is their power to keep memories green in more ways than one.
All photos by Kris Graves.