The crazed, broken trunks of dying Bradford pear trees emerge from the ground at awkward angles, like wraiths struggling to rise from ancient graves. I’m standing at the corner of Anne Street and Country Club Drive, looking through the trees at the bustling construction site where the new Shamrock Gardens Elementary is slowly taking form.
Once the darlings of landscapers for their rapid growth and spring clusters of white, Bradford pears have an impressively long list of shortcomings. They’re invasive, crowding out native trees. They don’t sustain moths, butterflies or other insects, which pollinate gardens and feed birds and their babies. While their flowers briefly shine, their berries stink.
They also have short lifespans – between 15 and 25 years – and as they near the end of their allotted time they tend to split and crash to the ground in large chunks.
I know this struggling cluster of trees quite well. I’ve been working with landscape at Shamrock Gardens since the fall of 2006, when my son started kindergarten there. Our family was part of a group working to revitalize and reintegrate the school, an effort that included cleaning up the grounds, building butterfly, vegetable and pollinator gardens, and shaping a caterpillar-raising program that reached every student in the school.
I had been trying to get Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to address the problem of the Bradford pears for some time. The trees looked fine in the fall of 2006. A decade later they were dying – and they weren’t going gracefully. Periodically, one would split and dump part of its crown on the grass below.
But I didn’t press that hard. After all, the school was about to be torn down and replaced. I figured that would solve the problem. I seem to have been wrong.
The design of the new school required that the site be razed. We lost our glorious spicebush, which nurtured swallowtail and saddleback caterpillars, along with countless other creatures. We lost the grove of sweetgums where our resident hawk liked to perch, and whose leaves fed the luna moths our students raised each year. We lost our towering magnolia, a tree so beautifully shaped that Larry Mellinchamp, the-now retired director of UNC Charlotte’s botanical gardens, admired it every time he visited.
The Bradford pears, on their last legs, endured.
Back in April, after I drove by the site and saw the trees still standing, I reached out to the project manager overseeing the construction of Shamrock Gardens for CMS. I’ll call him J. I wanted to find out when the trees would be taken out, and to make suggestions about what might be planted in their place.
What I got was a master class in bureaucratic obfuscation.
Beating around the bush
The call morphed into a long, astonishingly contentious conversation. In retrospect, I recognize a familiar theme – the conviction that the plethora of overlapping regulations that govern a project like this means that only those who planned it know how to carry it out. Anyone foolish or arrogant enough to suggest changes or improvements simply does not understand the contingencies involved.
At the time, though, it was just infuriating. I felt I had been cast in the role of elitist, hysterical, busybody mom. To my chagrin, in the heat of the moment I seem to have played it well. Yelling occurred. I sank so low that at one point I actually said: “You don’t know who I am, do you?”
Once I realized that there were no plans to remove the trees, I pointed out that in addition to their many faults, they were dying. J countered that this was simply my opinion. Experts would have to weigh in. We went back and forth on that one for a while.
Changing the subject, I explained that if the trees did go, Shamrock families would prefer they be replaced with native trees, which would help nurture bugs, birds and other wildlife. If natives were more expensive, as they likely would be, we could raise funds to make up the difference.
Not happening, J responded. CMS was committed to equity. Taking parent contributions for one school and not others would violate that lofty principle. I got that – equity was after all the reason we had enrolled our son at Shamrock Gardens in the first place. So I suggested that perhaps we could devise a broader program to raise money to put native trees at other new schools as well. J would have none of it. Commitment to equity, or convenient excuse?
Finally, I played what I thought would be my winning card: I pointed out that if one of the trees split at the wrong moment a child could get hurt.
J laughed. I kid you not.
As we talked, I gathered a few clues to his perspective. The Bradford pears were apparently considered street trees. If they were taken out, the city tree ordinance required that they be replaced, which would be expensive. It was already hard enough to keep the construction budget in line. J has a tough job. No argument with that.
In the end, his strategy worked, more or less. I hung up, took a deep breath, and resolved to deal with the trees after the new school opened.
A couple of months later, as I was describing my experience to a group of friends, one of them perked up. She was an active member of the West Charlotte High School National Alumni Association. The West Charlotte building was also being replaced, and the alumni had found the process similarly frustrating. We weren’t sure whether we had the same project manager, but we had definitely had the same experience.
We had to laugh.
“We thought it was because we were Black,” she said.
“I thought it was because I was a woman,” I replied.
At least we were dealing with equitable assholery.
The branches come down
A few days after my conversation with J, I drove by Shamrock again. Lo and behold, a fallen length of Bradford pear lay draped over the adjoining construction fence. Red tape blocked the spot where the dead branches intruded on the walkway. I can’t say I didn’t smile. Or that I didn’t take a picture and send it to J with the terse comment “FYI.”
Reasonable people might in theory hold differing opinions on whether Bradford pears make valuable additions to a landscape. But this particular group of Bradford pears is dying, splitting and falling. This is not opinion.
More than 30 years ago, when I was a reporter at the Anniston Star in Anniston, Alabama, I covered a similar story in nearby Jacksonville. The town’s Super Valu grocery store had closed amid a bitter legal tussle, and when bankrupt owner James Crawford locked the doors for the last time, he left most of the food inside. It didn’t take long for the local gopher rats to notice.
There wasn’t a lot to do in Jacksonville back then. Teenagers started riding up to the store at night to shine their headlights through the big front windows and watch the rats enjoy their newfound paradise. This went on for months.
When I started making phone calls, I found that there were several parties involved in the dispute, including Super Valu Development Inc., the Small Business Administration, and the FDIC. Each had an interest in one piece or another of the building or the equipment inside. But no one claimed the food. One of the attorneys insisted on calling it the “alleged food.”
This inspired a sentence that I consider one of the high points of my brief spell in journalism: “The food, therefore, seemed to have had at best a marginal legal existence, although that does not seem to have mattered to the rats.”
It’s sort of like that here. The doomed Bradford pears exist as circles on a map, categories in an ordinance, potential cost overruns, all of which figure into a shifting array of abstract calculations. Until they hit the ground.
A few days ago, five months after the piece of tree smashed the fence, I sent J another email to check on any new developments. He wrote back well within the 24-hour period that CMS policy requires for a response to public inquiry.
“As discussed on the phone a couple months ago these trees are being monitored by Urban Forestry and the construction team through the duration of the project. A final decision will be decided upon towards the end of the project. Upon that time an action plan will be implemented.”
Will they stay or will they go? Your guess is as good as mine.