I went on a walking tour Sunday morning in the Champlain Park neighborhood. This west side group of streets runs north of the transitway, from the Mosque at Northwestern to Island Park Drive. The neighborhood began as a cottage area on the floodplain of the River (the railway tracks, now transitway trench, marked the high water mark of the floodplain). Later, small houses were built in the 1940’s followed by some 2-storey homes. My grandparents lived in one on Cowley.
The neighborhood had its quirks, including a lack of storm sewers and inconsistent rear yard grading, which led to frequent basement flooding. I recall sitting on my grandparent’s back porch watching lighting repeatedly strike the tall CBC mast on Lanark Avenue (now gone) across from my high school, Champlain (now also repurposed) whose principal was Russ Jackson. After watching the storm, we trooped down to the basement to see how much water came in, and to move the beer.
Over the fence to the rear was an extra deep lot with a rather slummy cottage on it, set about 100′ back from the road, occupied by an artist, possibly Victor Tolgesy whose works include the lady flying in the cloud sculpture hanging in the ByWard Market building. Down the street was a cold-war era house built of solid concrete (or at least with a concrete bomb shelter) so that after the rest of the City was Bombed Out, their river-view house would still stand (don’t laugh, that is why Tunney’s Pasture and EMR Booth Street were built — outside of the bomb blast radius that would take out the downtown, there would still be surviving civil servants available to run the country).
What made the promised 90 minute tree-watching walk on Sunday more intriguing was the heavy political overtones. To its residents, this appears to be a neighborhood under siege.
Many of the giant burr oak trees are in the back yards, but many are also visible on front yards or at corner lots. The trees are very tall, multi-branched, with a distinct upward open shape rather than a round canopy.
Some of the trees are very old, about 175 years, and over a meter in diameter. Here is a tree slice that illustrates their size and leads into the next phase: cutting them down:
The dark smudge near the heartwood in the centre is staining from an iron nail put in the tree about 1840. While it may have been an important survey nail, I think it more likely it was the end of a clothesline. The underwear must be dried.
There is a nice assortment of other large native trees in the neighborhood: ash, catalpa, red oak, silver and sugar maples, rowanberry (mountain ash).
So where did the tree slice pictured come from? Infill. A number of the smaller houses have been replaced in the 70’s through 90’s with suburban-style homes that still don’t blend in well. But they were generally single homes. Today, developers are replacing old stock houses with very large singles, duplexes, or clusters of 3 to five homes. In addition, homeowners are turning smaller old homes into McMansions. These larger homes, or new homes, take up more of the lot, and the trees gotta go.
The political education bit started with identifying the favorite villain, the evil, greedy developer who builds new houses that “don’t blend in” in pursuit of that dreadful profit. In Champlain Park, profit is still a four-letter word.
But over the course of the walk, the political message got more nuanced. The City was fingered as a villain, for wanting to plant Kentucky coffee trees and crab apples and other small-size trees instead of large growing natives. And for being very willing and quick to identify large trees as “having a fungus” or some other reason for cutting them down now. Yup, the City was getting tagged with the “enemy” list, which I personally found very gratifying since I thought I was alone in thinking the worst enemy of the urban forest is the City Employee.
The road department employees also came in for criticism, for excessively wide roads although no one could quite bear to suggest maybe the streets themselves were too wide in the neighborhood. And don’t forget Hydro, which loves to trim trees around overhead wires.
Elderly people were also identified as culprits. In the fall, there apparently is a spate of calls to the City to cut down trees that drop “too many leaves” on the poor elderly homeowner. They should be sentenced to condo-beria.
There was a bit of political self-congratulation too, identifying homeowners that positioned their new homes or whopping rear-facing additions to avoid established trees. The survival of some specimens I saw seemed more due to good luck than anything else (like the foundation that came within 3′ of giant oak, on all three sides…). Yes, the era of the modest size home is long gone in this neighborhood.
As is the modest-priced house, since infills tend to be large to maintain the ratio of lot price to house price. And it won’t be helped by insisting on fewer larger houses on the lots (very very expensive) rather than more, smaller houses (duplexes, also very expensive, but only with one very). And the neighbours didn’t take kindly to the condos elsewhere in the neighborhood either, as I saw several lawn signs denigrating condo developers. Where are those old folks going to downsize, or young couples going to live — Kemptville? Cornwall?
No blame was apportioned to the vendors of the lots who happily enjoyed the large trees, then sold to developers, with perhaps a tich of foreknowledge about what might be coming. Or the homeowner who sold his side lot, knowing the five massive oaks would be cut down, but preferred that the trees go rather than forego his 4′ strip of grassy sideyard. There is no shortage of villains in the area.
But there were heros too. Some residents are collecting acorns, and sprouting them. Residents talk of inoculating ash trees ($300 a pop, must be done several times…) at their own expense. The Community Association is getting more proactive with developers to try to fit in development and prevent tumorous additions from killing trees.
It is hard to argue aesthetics and environmental values with developers and city bureaucrats who work with dollars. A number of trees in the area were tagged with with price-tags, complete with scan code, showing the economic value of a large tree:
I did not see any signs of guerilla gardening, where residents plant their oak whips on parkland or roadsides, but I am confident that will be happening by next year.
In the meantime, the last laugh may come from the trees themselves. Such very tall trees do periodically shed a large branch, from great height, squishing the car or house below. Or, as shown below, just muscling those pesky humans aside: