Houston Street is a designated truck route and one of the longest, widest, busiest, and most congested thoroughfares in Manhattan, stretching two miles across the full width of the island between the Hudson and East rivers. It is a jumble of traffic and billboards (a lesser Times Square) choked by the ongoing construction of an ambitious capital reconstruction campaign begun in 2005.
The end result will be a completely rebuilt east-west corridor with new roadways, street lighting, traffic signals, fire hydrants and other utilities, landscaped central median, street furniture, and wider sidewalks “almost like a European promenade.” Parallel plans are underway to build upscale offices and apartments in the $1,000 per square foot range for what is envisioned as the new Soho.
But for now, raw stretches of Houston Street seem like a war zone. What stands out are not the cars, trucks or heavy construction equipment, which all blur together, but a perfectly-shaped tree, a living green pyramid, that towers more than a hundred feet above the din, higher even than a neighboring 9-story building. It is the tallest Metasequoia glyptostroboides, or Dawn Redwood, in Manhattan.
How it came to lord over Houston Street is an extraordinary story, particularly since this type of tree (an ancient relative of California’s giant redwoods and sequoias) was believed to be extinct for millions of years. It was known only through Mesozoic-era fossils until 1941 when a Dawn Redwood grove was discovered in the mountainous Szechuan province of remote central China.
Seeds were collected but nothing much was done until after the war. Botanists at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum then planted and cultivated the seeds, and in 1948 classified the Dawn Redwood a living species. Seeds were distributed to universities and tree trusts, and Dawn Redwoods sprouted up all around the world, even in private gardens.
Matthew Stephens, director of street planting for the New York City Parks Department, explained that the discovery was “the equivalent of finding a dinosaur somewhere on the planet still alive in a tucked away corner….It’s the comeback story of conservation.”
Remarkably, the tree on Houston Street, like every other Dawn Redwood outside China, can be traced back ultimately to the same three trees and the half-dozen people who collected their seeds. A case study in Nature’s opposites, it is a towering giant with a spread of more than 25 feet yet it has soft fern-like foliage and produces only tiny seed cones barely the size of a nickel. It is both coniferous and deciduous, which is to say it has evergreen-like needles rather than leaves, but they turn colors: bright green in spring, orange in autumn and then drop away in winter, exposing a pyramidal structure of bare branches. The tree is monoecious, i.e. equipped with both male and female reproductive parts — a hermaphrodite.
In a final contrast, this one bitter, the species has been classified by the World Conservation Union as “critically endangered” in China, the very place where the living fossil was brought to modern light. Government authorities have outlawed logging or even cutting the branches of Dawn Redwoods but intensive rice cultivation has encroached upon wooded lands. Beyond that, the very popularity of the tree has threatened its existence in the wild as the high demand for seedlings has driven the collection of cones to such a degree that natural regeneration can no longer occur in the forest. Elsewhere the trees are thriving.
Of local note is the location of the Houston Street Dawn Redwood at the southern tip of the historic Bouwerie, or farm, owned by Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam. The tree’s role in modern urban history is likewise notable as part of the first community garden in New York City.
In 1973, the local artist-activist Liz Christy banded with friends to reclaim the rubble-filled lots gouged open along Houston by the construction of the IND subway line in the 1930s and then, in the late 1950s, by the street’s further widening into an 8-lane crosstown artery. As the city spiraled downward in the following decades, Christy and the so-called Green Guerillas took to the streets. They targeted abandoned lots with unorthodox tactics like hurling “seed grenades” made from condoms, balloons, and other projectiles filled with seeds and fertilizer. Come spring, flowers started to bloom amid the debris. People started appropriating and caring for the abandoned properties, and New York’s community gardening movement was born.
The pioneering Liz Christy Community Garden, named in memory of its founder, went on to become a powerful force in urban horticulture. It conducted workshops, taught others how to tackle similar projects, cultivated more than 2,000 varieties of plants that would grow in hostile urban environments, and shared seedlings and expertise with gardeners across the city. The garden still serves the community and is open to the public daily.
Meanwhile the hardy, pollution tolerant, beetle-resistant, largely carefree Dawn Redwood has continued to grow at the astonishing rate of two feet or more per year. At its potential full height of 150 to 200 feet, it could reach the size of a 15- or 20-story building (roughly 75% as high as the Flatiron Building). Huge.
Because of their presumed extinction and proven modern growth, Dawn Redwoods are sometimes planted as memorials to signify eternal life and renewal. There are three at the northern tip of Strawberry Fields in Central Park, a cluster in Battery Park City near the World Trade Center, and others commemorating 9/11 first responders. A baby tree, 15 feet tall, was planted in November 2011 at Tompkins Square Park to honor Steve Jobs with the epitaph: “Stay hungry. Stay Foolish.” Go figure. The New York Botanical Garden has a grove of 80-foot trees, and others grow in all five boroughs as they are among the 42 species approved by the city for street trees. There used to be more but prime specimens fell victim to the saltwater floods of hurricane Sandy.