One of the many delights of living in the Old Southwest neighborhood, as I do, is the trees. We’re shaded, protected, calmed. Joyce Kilmer might have had our neighborhood in mind when he wrote that little poem.
On Westwood Avenue, my street, there are fewer sweet gums today than this time last week. You’ve probably read about what some call a controversy, but that I prefer to think of an exercise in grass-roots — or maybe I should say tree roots — democracy.
It's a classic Columbia story, a tale of neighborhood activism and government responsiveness, with a bit of miscommunication and a hint of paranoia for seasoning.
Along with its no-longer-so-prevalent sweet gums, Westwood is lined with academics along with a few physicians and lawyers, people with the ability and inclination to speak their minds.
So when the neighbor at one end of my block learned on a recent weekend that a city contractor planned to start cutting trees the following Monday, it's no surprise that protest erupted. The alarm went door to door and then to the always-receptive Barbara Hoppe, who represents progressive preservation as well as her Sixth Ward.
The would-be cutters still showed up Monday and were quickly sent on their way. (The foreman of the crew, glancing a little apprehensively over his shoulder in the direction of our lead protester, told me, "That lady said she'd sue me.")
There was no lawsuit, but the neighbor at the other end of the block whose innocent proposal to have the trees in front of his own house removed had drawn the city arborist’s attention to us felt compelled to compose a lengthy emailed defense and explanation. Angst, even anger — though not yet chainsaw exhaust — was in the air.
Then came a neighborhood meeting, followed by another, that one attended by the city directors of Planning and Public Works, the city arborist and two Council members. Apology, explanation, compromise.
The apology was for the failure of communication about the planned removals. The explanation covered the now-obvious unsuitability of the sweet gum as a streetside tree. The late Henry Bent, an earlier generation’s tree loving academic but a chemist rather than a botanist, envisioned the forest cover we enjoy. He just failed to imagine that the trees he planted 70 years ago would send their surface roots destructively under sidewalks and through curbs.
The compromise reduced the deforestation and hinted, at least, at the possibility of city-financed street and sidewalk repair to come. The City Council will consider at Monday’s meeting whether to direct some of the leftover money in the snow removal budget to fixing Westwood.
Another important compromise was a promise to explore alternatives to the standard concrete sidewalks in an effort to save some trees.
Our Missourian’s report of that session also broke the news of a $10,000 study of the trees in the whole Old Southwest, from Stadium to Broadway west of Providence. That study, just completed and due to be posted shortly on the city website, examined the health of and the possible risks posed by the more than 2,000 trees we mainly cherish.
And the paranoia? Hank Ottinger, president of our neighborhood association, got an email from one neighbor who saw in this episode evidence of a City Hall conspiracy to denude the Fourth Ward in revenge for our troublesome activism. We may not be universally beloved, but that’s just not believable.
What is believable, though, and what this tale reminds us, is that Columbia is in serious need of a more strongly preservationist tree policy. As the Imagine Columbia process continues, let’s not only imagine but enact reasonable and enforceable rules to protect and extend Henry Bent’s vision.
Just without the sweet gums.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.