No Longer Swaying In the Breeze

The perils of clear-cutting our neighborhoods


Janet’s trees are gone. The glorious white pine, the luscious hemlocks, the grand maples. Here at 7:59 in the morning, gone minutes later. Not really. It took two days to cut down all the trees, every last one. The chainsaws were busy. A dozen trees, some a century old, fell to the ground with a thud. We watched for a while from our window across the street and then pulled the shade and turned away. It was a sickening sight.

When it was over, I had my first view of the neon sign at the convenience store across three blocks: open.

This is a story for our times. Janet lived in the big brown house on the corner for 60 years, maybe more. Her backyard was a green woodlands, a gift to the neighbors who adored her. But the yard, unknown to most, was also a buildable lot.

When she died last year, her heirs sold the two properties, the house and the lot, as a package. “Diamond in the rough,’’ one ad said. “Opportunity!’’ A developer scooped up everything. He’s renovating the house and building a single-family in the backyard.

That’s right. A single-family in a backyard the size of a swimming pool.

I am told that the house will be tasteful. Can’t wait.

I don’t know if I’m more disappointed with the heirs, the developer or the realtors. One thing I do know: Our corner is ruined. It will never be the same. In my optimistic moments, I imagined a dreamer galloping in on her white horse to spruce up the house and preserve the yard. I imagined seeing over the picket fence a feisty mutt or a spunky girl kicking a red ball.

I know: This is the United States of America and it’s your right to make as much money as possible off your land, as long as you don’t break the law. And I didn’t step up to buy the property. But this is also a country that treasures free speech. I have a pen and it’s filled with ink.

What’s happening on the East Side? Every sliver of open space is being developed. “Rare buildable lot on the East Side,’’ I’m not kidding. That’s another way Janet’s property was advertised on real estate websites. I wonder what she would think about that.

She was fiercely protective of her trees, hence the irony. During our many chats, she told me about them. The hemlock in the side yard was once a sapling, a present from a friend out of state. Janet planted it, and it grew.

The white pine, tall and slender, soared over the house. She told me her pediatrician came over one day and cut the lower branches so her small children wouldn’t get hurt in a collision. Back then, she said, doctors made house calls.

Janet let her branches go where they wanted. Sometimes they wandered over her fence into neighbors’ yards. One homeowner wanted her to cut the branches back. Janet refused. I don’t blame her. The trees were fantastic. All trees are, even the dying ones, bare and twisting in the twilight.

A few months later, a tree cutter, chainsaw in hand and buzzing, showed up at her house. Without her permission, he opened her gate and walked into her yard to do his business. I saw him and came running over. I told him to scram, and he did.

My 11-year-old son has memories of the trees. He’d walk to our bedroom window in the morning, wrap his body around the curtain and inspect the white pine. What was it doing today? Swaying in a spring breeze or shaking off snowflakes?

The building boom on the East Side began, I suspect, with the houses on Blackstone. You know the ones I’m talking about. The spooky house was ripped down a few years ago to make way for two houses that look like T.J. Maxx amid a sea of J.Crew. Those houses led to more. Unattractive is an understatement. I’m waiting for Mr. Ed, the talking horse, to pop its head through a garage door.

Then there's the proposed four-story luxury student apartment complex on Thayer Street. When I first read about the project in the paper, I thought surely City officials would say no thank you. Too bloody big.

Now it appears the plan is moving ahead. Nine houses will be flattened. Do college students really need to live in pristine apartments with flat screen TVs and underground parking? What are undergraduates doing with cars anyway?

We all need to take a deep breath and think carefully about what we’re doing to the neighborhood. One word comes to mind: excess. The East Side doesn’t need more two-family houses. There are plenty of multi-family houses that need facelifts. Go on. Do the neighbors a favor. Renovate them.

As for the luxury apartments, well, that’s a no-brainer. Teenagers in digs whose monthly rent is higher than the yearly income of some people living on the earth we all share give me a knot in my stomach just thinking about them.

“What goes around comes around’’ is one of my favorite idioms. Wait. Just wait. It’s worth noting that the people involved in the deal on my street don’t live on my street. They don’t see what we see: stumps, a shot-up landscape. Maybe a backhoe driver will show up at their doorstep one day with a surprise: Move over; we’re building a Walmart.

My son says, “Look away, Mom.’’ I’ll try.

Janet was my friend. She was great. I miss her. I wish she was still there, tending to the wild. If you’re peering down at us, Janet, I’d like to say thank you. Thanks for giving us the trees as long as you could, to the end.