For the love of a giving tree

Back Bay residents band together to save an ancient elm that served them well

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By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / January 9, 2011

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Stories about city trees tend to end dismally — giants felled by disease, wind, or space needed for a driveway.

This is a different story.

On Marlborough Street in the Back Bay, an endangered American Elm, circa 1881, remains standing after residents banded together, appealing to friends in high horticultural places, employing a bit of landscaping ingenuity and in the end, overcoming bureaucratic tangles and exacting aesthetic tastes to save it.

“It had become a friend,’’ said James Paradis, who has looked out on the tree’s upper reaches from his brownstone’s front windows since 1976.

Friend, in fact, might be too loose a term. For a certain set, urban trees like Marlborough Street’s elm are kin — beloved and tended to with unfettered devotion. Particularly so in the Back Bay. Here residents annually raise $20,000 in donations to prune and care for the neighborhood’s street trees, and additional sums to inocu late trees on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. In the case of the American Elm on Marlborough, residents had poured thousands of dollars into maintaining it before its bulging roots began popping out bricks from the sidewalk, creating an impassable stretch for wheelchair users and threatening the tree with condemnation.

The tree-tending in the Back Bay pays dividends. Some 23 percent of the neighborhood is shaded — in contrast with South Boston, where the figure is 9 percent; Chinatown, where it’s 8 percent; and Charlestown, where it’s 12 percent, according to a 2008 survey by the Urban Ecology Institute, a nonprofit group based in Cambridge that studies urban environmental issues.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino pledged in 2007 to increase those figures by planting 100,000 new trees by 2020, with funding drawn from private and public sources. So far 5,000 have been planted.

Cities across the nation have undertaken similar initiatives as trees have come to be seen as valuable air pollution filters and relievers of heat and noise, which some believe can lead to a decrease in violence. Yet with the recession, those efforts have stalled across the country, said Peter Christianson, co-executive director of the Urban Ecology Institute.

An equal challenge lies in maintaining trees that have been there for decades. Urban trees often live challenging existences, squeezed into spaces not meant for their heft, battered by construction, cars, vandals and dog waste. They are wedged between the pressures of development and the cost of upkeep. The city scrambles to keep pace with citizen requests for tree care; 18 months is a usual wait time, said Greg Mosman, the city’s arborist. Even when the city goes to such lengths as to require a developer to hire an arborist to monitor a tree throughout a construction project, he said, it isn’t always enough to save it.

All of which makes the American Elm on Marlborough Street a marvel to many. In addition to enduring the usual battery of hurdles, it also survived the onslaught of Dutch Elm Disease, the ailment that killed many others on the nearby Commonwealth Avenue Mall in the 1960s.

The Marlborough Street elm was such a fixture of the neighborhood, children on their way to school would often hug its wide trunk and neighbors have spent hours pondering its labyrinth of limbs. “I would look out our living room window and wonder what sort of stories the tree could tell,’’ said Yasmin McCarthy, who has lived in a brownstone opposite the tree for 26 years.

Then, 130 years into life, the elm met its ultimate foe: neighbor complaints. Its roots were causing the brick sidewalk to buckle, in violation of federal law requiring access for the disabled. Something had to be done or the tree would have to come down.

Last spring, 20 residents gathered in solemn meeting around the tree to discuss solutions. The roots couldn’t be cut because doing so could destabilize the elm. A proposal to build a wooden ramp over the roots was discarded. Too ugly. A layer of black asphalt or rubber over the roots, too, was dismissed. Way too ugly.

But this idea appealed: An asphalt supplier from Hyde Park recommended a process in which crushed rock is layered with liquid asphalt to create a durable yet flexible surface that would gently slope over the tree roots. He would use a type of rock, quarried in Pennsylvania, whose color almost exactly matched the red brick of the sidewalk, and the supplier, Paul Fulmore of Riverside Asphalt Services, offered to provide the materials and labor free of charge.

Boston officials, who have authority over the tree since it sits on city property, allowed residents to go ahead with the plan, which then had to be approved by three government agencies — two city and one state. After six months of regulatory consideration, the group got permission to start the work, which was completed in November.

“It did feel like a triumph — a tree triumph,’’ said Margaret Pokorny, a resident who helped save the tree she estimates to be about 100 feet tall.

Mosman, the city’s arborist, who maintains the city’s trees in its parks and streets, said most trees meet a different fate. Many succumb to health problems. The average life of a street tree is about 30 years, he said. Healthy trees, too, sometimes are permitted to be taken down to make way for construction, after a “tree hearing’’ that Mosman oversees.

One day last month, Mosman held “tree hearings’’ for three trees — one in East Boston, another in Roxbury, and another in Mattapan.

A single person showed up. But sometimes, the hearing room is full to bursting with residents who want a tree to remain.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love trees,’’ Mosman said. Sometimes though, they have to come down and tempers flare.

In the Back Bay, the American Elm is now secure, its roots no longer a problem for a well-trod part of the sidewalk. Supporters hope they’ve bought the elm at least another 50 years.

“I feel a deep responsibility,’’ said Susan Prindle, a Back Bay resident who helped with the tree’s saving. “This is something that people have left for us to take care of.’’

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at