Over this last Labor Day holiday, I was heartsick to hear that Inglewood had given the green light for 130 trees in the city to be cut down pretty much in one fell swoop. The next day I was further devastated when I read in the Times that the city of L.A. -- South Central, to be specific -- had agreed to cut down 300 more.
I figured there had to be a very good cause behind this coordinated effort to eliminate so much greenery that would be important to any neighborhood, but to Inglewood and neighboring South Central especially. The tall pines and conifers that line Crenshaw Boulevard's south end of Inglewood where I happen to live are majestic and lovely and provide a visual counterargument to some things along the boulevard that aren't so lovely -- liquor stores, a Laundromat, mini-malls. Trees in general makes places more livable and hospitable, not to mention cooler and more comfortable, and in these parts we'll take all the amenities we can get. And unlike the trees growing in Brooklyn and other cities, L.A. trees are big and lush and diverse, ranging from magnolias to elms to palms. It's the one instance in which the phrase "urban jungle" is not only true, it's a compliment. Like sunshine and good weather, abundant trees are the great lifestyle equalizer in SoCal, wherever you live.
So imagine my amazement when I discovered that a virtual forest is being axed to clear a path for the transport of the retiring space shuttle Endeavour, which will travel to its final resting place next month at the California Science Center near USC. Evidently the streets aren't wide enough to accommodate the nearly 80-foot wingspan, and the only way it can make the ground trip is to remove the trees in order to widen the streets. Excuse me? Not only is this not a good cause, it's being done for a one-time happening that hardly seems worth the sacrifice of so much landscaping. Engineers swear it's the most efficient way to make this transport of a historical object, but I don't believe that. This is the space shuttle, after all -- can't they drop the thing from the sky? Stand it on its narrow end? Where is the lorax, or the South Central Farm tree sitters, when you need them? The California Science Center promises to replace each leveled tree with two newly planted ones, but that's cold comfort. It's going to take decades for those sprigs to reach the heights of the trees being buzzed along Crenshaw and Manchester. I -- and a lot of other folks -- likely won't be around to see them.
I don't like how effusive Inglewood mayor James Butts is over the event -- not necessarily the tree-cutting, but the fact that the spectacle of the Endeavour going from the airport to the Science Center will occasion a big civic event/celebration that mayors of struggling towns such as Inglewood welcome. But that's awfully shortsighted. It's hard to imagine other, more affluent neighborhoods agreeing to the barbarity of having hundreds, or even dozens, of their trees annihilated in order to move something that's become a symbol of a defunct space program into a museum. To other folks' way of thinking, the shuttle would have to find a place out on Mount Wilson or somewhere away from residential areas that justifiably would want to keep as many of their trees as possible. Sure, some older trees could stand to be trimmed or removed, but 400 of them? Smells like yet another sorry instance of the leadership of colored neighborhoods selling the neighborhood cheap.
I drove north down Crenshaw yesterday from Inglewood, not wanting to look at a spot near 78th Street where I knew a big tree had been cut down, one that always announced the rise and curve of the boulevard at the point it runs into LA. city limits. But voyeuristic curiosity, the kind that makes you look at a bloody car accident against your will, won out; I looked. The stump was there, flat and pale in the hot sun, surrounded by other trees that now looked like a group of mourners. That corner won't be the same for a long, long time.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.