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The Village in Bloom

Early spring is a magical time in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. As we recently discussed, the season has long been a source of inspiration for poets, artists, and musicians associated with the neighborhood. Among the clearest, and most joyous, markers of warmer weather to come are the trees as they begin to bloom.

Cherry blossoms at Abingdon Square Park. Photograph by Dena Tasse-Winter, April 7, 2024.

For a few weeks at the cusp of spring, one might be particularly taken by the magnolias, which typically begin to fleetingly blossom right at the beginning of April. At Village Preservation’s offices, we find ourselves on “magnolia watch” around this time, as there is a resplendent specimen located right in our backyard, the garden we share with St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery.

Our magnolia tree has been on its way to full bloom for the past couple weeks, and I’m pleased to share that today, the flowers of the beloved Magnolia × soulangeana, or “saucer magnolia” — so labeled for the large, saucer-like petals it produces — have blossomed out:

Magnolia in bloom at St. Mark’s in the Bowery. Photographs by Dena Tasse-Winter, April 8, 2024.

Although many tree species are native to our landscape, including those of the oak, hickory, and chestnut varieties, New Yorkers did not always get to enjoy the shade, beauty, and other benefits, both physical and emotional, that street trees provide. When European colonizers first arrived, they set about deforesting much of the land, eradicating a huge number of trees.

A treeless street was typical for large parts of New York City at the turn of the century. Image from Annual Report of the Tree Planting Association of New York City, 1901-1902, via the New York Public Library.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the value of street trees in the urban landscape began to be recognized. In 1887, public health reformer Dr. Steven Smith introduced a bill to the New York State Legislature, incentivizing the planting of street trees in New York City for the first time. Dr. Smith had conducted a study that examined the correlation between high temperatures and childhood death rates, and hypothesized that an adequate concentration of trees would lower temperatures, especially in poorer areas of the city, where he believed the lack of shade amplified the dangerous levels of extreme heat found in tenements.

This fascinating history and more can be found in the book Seeing Trees: A History of Street Trees in New York City and Berlin by Sonja Dumpelmann. Another interesting fact she shares is that when trees first began to proliferate in the streetscape in the early 1900s, they did not have the iron tree guards that we see around the city today. In addition to discouraging dogs from despoiling the soil, which is their primary purpose these days, originally these guards were introduced to protect the tree trunks from horses, who would gnaw at the bark.

Screenshot of the New York City Street Tree Map

Another great resource to learn more about the trees all around us is the New York City Tree Map. Created by the NYC Parks Department, it has information on every single tree they manage throughout the five boroughs — nearly 868,000 at the time of this publication. Approximately one-tenth of these are of the London planetree variety, the most common New York City street tree species. I tried using the species filter to search for all magnolias (of which there are apparently currently 1,520), but while there are a handful indicated in our neighborhoods, including a concentration on East 4th Street between Broadway and Lafayette Street, the aforementioned tree in the yard of St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery is not listed, as it is located on private property.

Views of a magnolia grandiflora tree outside a 4-story brownstone; historic tree saved by Bedford-Stuyvesant community activist Hattie Carthan (1901-1984), in 1970. Image courtesy NYC Municipal Archives.

Speaking of magnolias, one of New York City’s most notable trees is the Magnolia grandiflora (laurel magnolia) at 677 Lafayette Avenue in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. This more than 100-year-old tree is the only living designated NYC landmark. It was saved from felling in the 1950s by Hattie Carthan, a local advocate.

There are several famous trees in our neighborhoods, too: two examples are the Hare Krishna Tree in Tompkins Square Park, an American elm so named because it was the first location where the “Hare Krishna” mantra was chanted publicly outside of India, marking the start of the western Hare Krishna movement in 1966; and the Hangman’s Elm (the nickname is a misnomer, as there is no public record of hangings from this tree), an English elm planted in 1790 at the northwest corner of today’s Washington Square Park, believed to be the oldest living tree in Manhattan.

I’ll leave you for now with another favorite local magnolia of mine:

Magnolia tree in Abingdon Square Park, Greenwich Village. Photograph by Dena Tasse-Winter, April 7, 2024.

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