Every ten years, the Parks Department embarks on a mission to catalog New York City’s 650,000-plus street trees. The resulting map gives a sense of the robust network’s heft and its immense implications for public health: the trees reduce heat island effect and clean the air. On the street itself, the trees are notable not just for their positive effects, but also when something goes wrong. Sometimes, trees are where they shouldn’t be: this past December, Astoria residents raised alarm when the City planted four street trees in the middle of a sidewalk, creating an obstacle for pedestrian traffic. Other times, trees are not where they should be, as artist Alexa Hoyer began to notice when she moved to Ridgewood, Queens. Looking for nature where open space was scarce, she found tree pits absent of trunks and filled instead with bricks or scattered with litter. She embarked on a mission to map the neighborhood’s peculiar voids and document their forms. An exhibition extending from the Fallow Frames project travels to Manhattan’s PS122 Gallery beginning March 9. We spoke with Hoyer about her archive of over 800 found assemblages of rat tunnels, stumps, and concrete, a portion of which we share below. – KR
How did you start to notice all these empty tree pits, and why photograph them?
I moved to the neighborhood recently after living in Greenpoint for almost two decades. Right away, I realized that there were no or very few green spaces. The closest park is a cement playground, and the closest large open space is a cemetery.
Because there are so many people living here, I thought about the relationship between the city and nature, and how some boroughs have more public spaces than others. There are a lot of street trees in Ridgewood, especially where I live. While many tree pits, of course, have trees and plant life, quite a lot are cut off or empty, exhibiting varying degrees of neglect and decay. During my walks around the neighborhood, I started noticing a variety of these empty tree beds and began researching and documenting them, reflecting on their strange beauty.
How exactly did you locate all these empty tree pits?
The actual process of walking played a big part in the work. Instead of looking at all of New York City for these empty tree pits — which would have been an impossible task — I chose Ridgewood as a self-contained neighborhood. But it was also quite overwhelming, which I hadn’t anticipated. I ended up with 800-something photographs. I would walk almost every morning, covering a few streets at a time. The idea was to create this kind of topography of these shapes, which becomes an abstract image when displayed as a larger group.
Since I wanted this to be systematic and objective, all the photos had to be consistent and follow the same rules. To ensure consistent lighting, I only photographed in the mornings, usually after sunrise for about an hour. After that, you would see the sun on the other side of the street already.
I photographed everything straight on, so that it looked more like a canvas or painting rather than a documentary photograph. At first, I used a tripod with a horizontal overhead. That turned out to be way more effort and work for the amount of photographs that needed to be taken. Some neighbors got suspicious, stopped me and were like, “What are you doing?” So, I dropped that method after two blocks.
I ended up trying a more low-key approach. I used a smaller, mirrorless, full-frame camera, with a fold-out screen, which I would then center over the tree bed as still as was possible.
I walked along every sidewalk of Ridgewood, beginning my journey in early 2023 and completing it in November of the same year. I’m not a fan of the cold, and as fall approached, I noticed that mornings were becoming quite chilly. This motivated me to finish the task.
Throughout the spring I captured a diverse range of images. The summer provided consistently warm weather. In the fall, I documented the changing foliage. Towards the end, as things were beginning to wither, I believe I captured all four seasons.
Finally, I created a walking tour with Google Maps using all the photographs. It’s called the Fallow Frames Walking Tour. In a way, it was a great way to get to know the neighborhood, too.
You’ve created other archives of ad hoc interventions in the streetscape. You photographed social distancing markers during the start of the Covid pandemic and boarded-up storefronts during the 2020 racial justice protests. What sorts of throughlines do you see in your work?
I have a sculpture background, so in a way they’re like these ready-made drawings or installation sculptures that are hidden in plain sight. All three of these projects — the Covid markings, the storefronts, and tree pits — have a formal aesthetic. They’re all photographed the same way, more or less, and they also have a little bit of humor and surrealness. Specifically, with the markings and the storefronts, I liked the homemade quality of it. And, while the tree beds are accidental, there’s a deeper narrative or subtext to all these projects. This story could be the pandemic, social justice, or environmental. I think the archive brings this dynamic to the forefront, almost like a code or a secret language to be deciphered.
This is such an extensive archive. What are your favorite patterns or typologies that you’ve seen in these 800 photographs of empty tree pits?
I have particular fondness for the tree stumps, which vary in shape and form. Sometimes it’s a sad little young tree and then other times it’s a whole root system that took over the space.
There are also all these brick patterns with diverse constellations. Sometimes they’re arranged intentionally. Other times, it’s just haphazardly scattered around. Sometimes they almost look like a Cubist painting. You have different kinds of bricks: red bricks, white bricks.
Some of them are covered in concrete. I saw quite a few of those, creating a barrier around a remaining tree stump. I assume that’s to deter rats from going in there.
But then, with other treatments, you can clearly see rat tunnels, entrances to some secret underground life. From cleanliness to elements of trash, debris, dog feces —those almost make it look like a still life.
So many of the individual photographs might make a viewer wonder: “What happened to the tree?” What have you learned about street tree management through this project?
The City usually removes a street tree for a few reasons: because of disease, infestation, or because of structural issues like root damage to the sidewalk or instability. Sometimes a tree has to be removed because of nearby construction, or it has to be removed for sidewalk repairs, or because of underground utilities.
Often, you have to call 311 for the removal to happen. To request a new tree, the City says it takes a year or more. But a lot of people in the neighborhood say that they requested a tree six years ago, and they’re still waiting. It seems like quite a bureaucratic process.
Stump removal is another process, and there’s a map that the Parks Department maintains of all the stumps that are slated for removal and the time that they will be removed. It’s quite interesting how bureaucratic everything is.
The City issues tickets to landlords who fail to keep their areas clean, but it’s worth noting that the trees in those areas are planted by the city itself. Additionally, the maintenance of these trees is handled by city contractors for the initial two years.
The other thing I noticed was that there are more empty tree beds in areas with more renters, larger apartment buildings, as well as industrial parts of the neighborhood. You see fewer of them in areas with more homeowners. Towards Glendale, there’s a lot more single-family houses, and people seem to be more diligent about making sure their street life looks good.
I think there’s a lack of public awareness that, for example, you can make little gardens in the tree pits. Of course, you have to follow the city regulations.
In an essay you commissioned for an exhibition building on this project, Diana Budds described the photos as a “provocation for what could be.” What possibilities has this project has provoked for you?
I came across Diana’s 2020 article on sidewalk tree pit microgardens. She vividly describes how DIY gardens on the sidewalks of New York City became more prevalent during the pandemic, when people had more time. I invited her to write a short essay on my project and to give a public talk on her research during the exhibition.
During my photo walks I encountered many of these gardens, predominantly in areas with homeowners rather than renters. I think that many New Yorkers are not aware of the creative potential these spaces hold. I think these photographs could inspire individuals to reclaim and cultivate these tree pits, even temporarily, especially in areas lacking green spaces. I created this map accessible to all with the hope that the data will be used somehow by other people.
The project works on multiple levels. There’s this formal photographic quality of these shapes that interests me. You can also enjoy the Fallow Frames Walking Tour. Then there’s this underlying call to action. I think it’s a source of inspiration, shedding a little bit of a light on these hidden spaces.
All photos by Alexa Hoyer
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.