A Band of Amateur Activists Rallies Around a Legendary Tree
This is, for a change, a feel-good story; maybe, so far, we hope; a breezy general history of a giant sycamore, our community, and a disparate band of amateur activists coming together to celebrate, and try to save, a living giant.
It all started a few months ago with a handwritten sign on a utility pole. Actually, it started almost a hundred years ago with a seed dropped in the soil. Okay, let’s start somewhere between the middle and the end:
In a year of tremendous political discord, true terror, media bombast and unprecedented natural disasters, an urban community of neighbors of all political persuasions and from all walks of life has come together to try to save a tree. Is saving a tree a big deal? Yes, we think it is.
In Santa Monica, California – a city most recently under a choking pall of thick smoke from the massive wildfires burning in surrounding communities – there is a beautiful, legendary tree at least 90 years old; it’s a fire-resistant native California Sycamore on a street called California Avenue that is not only a quite striking visual landmark but also a home for owls, falcons, hummingbirds, and butterflies. At 75-feet tall this tree towers over a low rise residential neighborhood alongside a street that links three schools and traverses a grid of 2 and 3-story apartment buildings, single family bungalow-style homes, 1920’s-era courtyard developments, modern transitional housing for homeless families, a residency for senior citizens, and three historic churches. The property on which this tree grows also features a farmhouse built in 1882 and was owned by the same family for many years; the California Sycamore on California Avenue has always been expertly and lovingly cared for by whoever owned the lot on which it stands.
The property was recently sold and a developer from outside the community announced his intention to immediately cut down this giant tree without any indication of what or even when anything would be built on what would suddenly become a vacant lot. That would be a shame.
California Sycamores are among the oldest species on Earth and are known for their longevity and hardiness, living more than 200 years, with some reported to have lived 500 to 600 years. Because of their history in this region, their beauty, their bountiful shade, the habitat they provide, their tolerance for drought, their resistance to fire, and because they are one of the few native hardwood trees still living in this region, California Sycamores – on public or private land – are protected in Los Angeles, Malibu, Pasadena, and other nearby towns; but in purportedly progressive and “green” Santa Monica there is no restriction on cutting down even the most venerable landmark street tree if it happens to be rooted on private land.
When it became apparent that imminent plans were being made to cut down this tree, someone stapled a sheet of typing paper to an adjacent utility pole; it was a white sheet with a crude drawing of a tree and the words “HELP SAVE THIS SYCAMORE. ANY IDEAS?” That’s all that was on the sign. Within hours a neighbor wrote her phone number on the sign, adding that she would like to help and that she had some ideas; soon she received some calls of support and she posted on a neighborhood website that the tree was threatened and anyone who wanted to help could pitch in. Within days there was a meeting of a handful of neighbors – none of whom had ever met each other before – after work hours in a nearby coffee shop.
Frustration was mollified, spirits were raised, and one woman suggested the next meeting should be on the public sidewalk beneath the tree’s wide canopy on a weekend morning – perhaps inviting a forestry expert who could educate us about both ecology and law (and even help us determine if the tree itself was healthy). A slightly larger crowd of people – again, mostly strangers to each other – attended. The expert said the tree was in great shape, and she suggested we might reach out to the developer to offer him support for variances if he would preserve the tree – a win-win for all. The woman who had put her number on the sign notified the local neighborhood association, whose key coordinator sparked to the idea of saving this tree and put in an application at city hall to seek official landmark status for the giant sycamore – a living biology lab two blocks from a large urban public school.
Someone reached out to the developer with our offer of local support for his future development if he’d save this tree. The response? Days later the developer arrived onsite to begin preparation to cut down the sycamore (under the guise of ‘tree trimming’). With the application for landmark status having been filed by the neighborhood association “just in time,” an emergency call was made to a city official who dispatched other city officials who raced to the site and ordered the developer to cease and desist. The tree was saved – temporarily – pending the upcoming hearing on its fate at the next meeting of the city landmarks commission.
The word went out: “Come to the meeting! You do not have to speak at this meeting – unless you want to – but your presence will be essential so hey, let’s make it fun! – join your neighbors, meet new friends, celebrate our city, pass the word: BE THERE MONDAY!” Through the neighborhood association’s contacts with local reporters a story about the tree appeared on the front page of the local newspaper. Soon people from all over the city were detouring from their usual paths to meet this tree.
On a cold Monday night, dozens of neighbors crowded into the small city meeting room, some with school age children brought by their parents to experience democracy in action. It was then revealed that the landmarks commission had already decided on a death sentence for this magnificent tree. It was painful to read the staff report on this legendary native tree as it threw very ‘negative shade’ on the entire Landmarks Commission process. Claiming to be based on their own arborist’s analysis, the staff report was filled with mis-statements and curious omissions as the city laid out the bizarre argument that the giant sycamore was nothing special.
When we found the unedited report from the arborist hired by the city, we were stunned to discover that he actually wrote a GLOWINGLY SUPPORTIVE report about this tree — but that the city’s staff for some reason chose to cut, paste, and rearrange the arborist’s written narrative in order to HANG the tree. Whereas the staff report said that the arborist noted an abundance of “native trees within a two block radius surrounding 1122 California Avenue,” the staff report omitted the rest of the arborist’s sentence which stated about these other trees that “none of these … were of significance due to small size, poor condition, etc … and do not compare in size, condition or beauty to the subject western sycamore.”
The arborist stated that The California Sycamore on California Avenue “makes up a significant portion of the dwindling native tree canopy in the area” with a summation that the sycamore is “exceptional for its good health.” And yet somehow this turned into a city staff conclusion that this tree “does not appear to be a particularly exceptional specimen.” The city arborist noted the massive bird nests in the tree; we in the community have seen falcons in and around this tree year in and year out – and the city arborist stated in his report that no action should be taken until these nests are studied as raptors are a year-round protected species. That this tree may be a nesting site for falcons was left out of the report on which the Landmarks Commission was asked to base its decisions.
When this was brought to the attention of the commissioners, they dug out and read the arborist’s unabridged report and seemed to realize they had been misinformed; then they heard the very personal, rational, and emotional public testimonies of the dozens of community members (not activists, just neighbors) – representing left and right, renters and local landlords, property owners, newcomers and long time residents, old and young – all who had come together to try to save a tree that some walk under on the way to school and others recalled playing under decades ago when they too were children; a dramatic moment was when the developer’s lawyer, as if relishing his chance to play the role of a cinematic villain, made an almost-gleeful public pronouncement that the intention of the developer is to cut down this extraordinary tree at the soonest opportunity. At the end of a very long evening, the Landmarks Commission decided not to grant that right to cut down the tree but to table their vote for their next meeting when the full board would be present and they could gather more input and information.
So that’s where we are now. It’s a happy “holiday vibe” story about a community coming together, but not yet with a happy ending. A stunning tree has been given a reprieve by a growing chorus of community support, and still stands one short block from Wilshire Boulevard – the “main street” of the Los Angeles megalopolis. The next meeting of the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission will take place in a few weeks and a vote will be taken to decide the fate of this tree – a tree that would have been pulped but for a community’s reaction to a sheet of paper asking for any ideas. Now it’s crunch time. Write to the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission, spread the word, HELP! – in any way you can. If you live in the Los Angeles area, come visit this living miracle at 1122 California Avenue; and please do to come to the next Santa Monica Landmarks Commission meeting (TBD, we’ll let you know when). A vote NOT to landmark is not a passive gesture to “let’s see what happens,” a NO vote will be an affirmative decision and directive by the City of Santa Monica to allow the immediate destruction of this venerable, legendary tree.
We want the city’s Landmarks Commission to vote YES, so please write, photograph, draw, paint, sing, research, share on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to support this tree and please, please tell the City of Santa Monica how you feel. If a small disparate group of human strangers can save a 90-year old living giant, it might be the harbinger of a much kinder, happier and healthier 2018.
Neil Cohen is a playwright and screenwriter who co-wrote and co-directed the underground indie cult comedy CHIEF ZABU, a film – lost for 30 years – about a New York real estate developer who dreams of having political influence. Recently featured in The New York Times, CHIEF ZABU is a film that Peter Bogdanovich calls “Funny and Outrageous” and The Hollywood Reporter calls “A Comic Time Capsule with a Timeless Punch.” He has lived in Santa Monica for 30 Years.
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