Deborah Needleman

Deborah Needleman

A weeklong electronic journal.
April 13 1999 9:30 PM

Deborah Needleman

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In midtown Manhattan, there are no seasons, only weather. Since it was a cool, lovely day, I left the office at lunchtime and went uptown to get some spring--the way one might go shopping. Central Park was a glorious, pointillist haze of yellow, white, and pink. The chartreuse flower clusters of the Norway maples and the golden seed pods of the elms had recently emerged, and the cherries were spraying their petals in the wind. Strangers kept commenting to me on the beauty of the park as I glanced around with my head raised to the trees in touristic appreciation.

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In general, uptown is fancier than downtown, where I live, and I was struck by how the trees are no exception. All of Manhattan's streets are in bloom now with the puffy clouds of Callery pear trees. Their white flowers opened on bare limbs about a week ago, and all over the city these blossoms are in various stages of being upstaged by emerging foliage, which in a matter of days will displace the flowers completely. Uptown, these trees are happier, larger, more thriving. Downtown, the preferred method of maintenance seems to be to ignore a new tree for a few years until it dies--a rather gruesome, broken-limbed death--and then plant another.

Callery pear trees certainly have their drawbacks--they are weak-limbed, uniformly round, and since the 1960s have been the ubiquitous parking-lot tree at malls across America because of their ability to withstand neglect and abuse. A friend told me about a fashionable New York dinner party where architects and designers snobbishly disparaged and ridiculed the pear tree as a silly lollipop. How inferior to the majestic sycamore that graciously line the boulevards of tasteful European cities! Since then I have taken a sort of defensive pride in these pears that is especially pronounced this time of year when they light up my still-dreary-from-winter street.

As I see it, the problem is not with any particular tree but with its usage. A well-utilized tree is a thing that makes me very happy. In the morning I passed an apartment building with a grid of saucer magnolias, their fleshy pink flowers in perfect bloom, out front. Thirty or so years ago, the builder had had the foresight to create a scented, dappled grove that passers-by are now drawn to sit under, rather than to just slap down some cheap, low maintenance shrubs.

The life of a tree in New York is nasty, brutish, and short, but even the maligned pear tree can be used to good effect. On my way into the park, I noticed that the oblong plaza in front of the Plaza Hotel is flanked on both sides by two gorgeous half circles of closely planted, mature pears in peak bloom, graciously defining the space. And peering into the courtyard garden of the Frick museum, I saw how the great garden designer Russell Page planted a row of Callery pears on an adjacent roof, so that their flowery tops give a sense of airy lightness to the enclosed garden.

In American cities, we typically do not plant trees close enough together for them to really define an area or create a beautiful scene. Trees dot our streets, each one bearing no relation to the one next to it. Even the gracious sycamore and its cousin the London plane tree can look ratty and sad if planted haphazardly (or too far from its neighbors) in front of, say, a brick apartment building, especially when left unpruned with trash bags hanging from its ample limbs, as is the case on my street. These trees often look their stately best planted in geometric groves and allées, like the grid in front of the Met or the triple rows of them around Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library.

I'll take the cheery pears any day over the scraggly sycamores that line my street.