Note: The events described in this post took place in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant during the 1960s and 70s, and were part of a larger story of civil rights activism across Brooklyn. For more resources on the history of this era in Brooklyn, see the references at the end of this post.
This is the story of how a magnolia tree in Bedford Stuyvesant became a New York City historic landmark. The nearly 100-year-old, four-story tall tree had survived its Brooklyn environment due to three nearby brownstones that protected it from extreme heat and cold. In the 1960s, local resident Hattie Carthan found out that both the tree and the buildings’ continued survival was threatened by development plans. She rallied her neighborhood to save them in an effort that not only saved the tree, but also eventually led to the creation of an institution, The Magnolia Tree Earth Center, that is devoted to environmental protection through community engagement.
Hattie Carthan moved in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1953, settling on a tree-lined block of Vernon Avenue. By 1964, her block was not the tree-lined oasis it once had been, and Carthan decided to form a block association with her neighbors and served as its president. She convinced the association to use funds to plant trees on their block, despite protests that falling leaves would mean more work raking for residents (and the creation of more trash that was unlikely to be picked up—see the note at the end of this post about the CORE collection). Carthan persuaded them by pointing out it made the street more attractive and thus increased the value of their properties.
She also invited then-Mayor John Lindsay to one of the association’s block parties, and to everyone’s surprise he actually came. He suggested that the city could help with the block’s tree-planting initiative, and soon Carthan and the Parks Department had cooked up a “tree-matching program.” Within a few years, more than 100 block associations had planted over 1500 trees under the umbrella of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Beautification Association, and Carthan formed the Neighborhood Tree Corps to care for the trees.
Soon thereafter, the community learned of the danger to their beloved magnolia tree and rallied around the Magnolia grandiflora. The Beautification Association formed the Magnolia Tree Committee, and it was around this time that Hattie Carthan earned the nickname “the tree lady.” “Save a tree—save a neighborhood” became the rallying cry for the Bedford-Stuyvesant community. The media picked up the story, and donations and well wishes began rolling in from all over the country—some addressed merely to “Magnolia Tree, Brooklyn NY”! In 1970, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the tree a living historic landmark—one of only two in New York City at the time.
Eventually, the committee raised enough money (through fundraising concerts with folksinger Pete Seeger in 1974 and 1977, among other efforts) to purchase the three brownstones near the tree and convert them into a center for environmental preservation and community involvement: The Magnolia Tree Earth Center. This fulfilled the mission put forth in one of their early fundraising solicitations: “The magnolia tree will thus become a living symbol of man’s concern and love for nature, and…this symbol will hasten the day when our city of New York will be a natural garden.”
The Center is still active today, and its Facebook page describes it as “a community proponent for environmental sustainability, STEM and green education, and youth and community development.” Indeed, since its early days the Magnolia Tree Committee and the Earth Center have encouraged youth involvement with the community and the environment, starting gardening and tree-planting programs throughout Bedford-Stuyvesant.
As Hattie Carthan said, “Dreams don’t come true without a lot of legwork and paperwork and meetings and phone calls. Sometimes I thought our tree would be strangled by red tape. But when I see it alive, I know that ten years of blood, sweat, and tears have been worth it.”* The Magnolia Tree Earth Center is a living testament to how the determination of one community member can lead to widespread impact and change for a neighborhood and a city.
Brooklyn Historical Society holds materials related to the development of the Magnolia Tree Earth Center in the Robert Vadheim Brooklyn neighborhood renewal and development collection, 1962-1987 (call number 1987.002), in Box 1, Folder 3. The collection also includes information on civil rights and discrimination in Brooklyn during the same time period.
*These quotes and much of the information in this post was taken from an article in a magazine included in the Vadheim collection: Exxon USA, fourth quarter, 1980.
For more on civil rights activism in Brooklyn, and Bedford-Stuyvesant in particular, please see the following BHS resources:
Call number: ARC.002
Arnie Goldwag was an officer of Brooklyn CORE in the first half of the 1960s. This collection consists primarily of his subject files concerning civil rights activism during those years. One example of the activities documented here is the protests over the poor sanitation service mentioned above.
Call number: ARC.124
The bulk of this collection is copies of the publication Restoration from 1970-80, along with other materials related to the activities and history of the BSRC.
Call number: 2008.030
Brooklyn Historical Society conducted the interviews in this collection in 2007-2008 to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the BSRC as the first community development corporation (CDC) in the United States.
Diana got inspired to do this post while compiling and writing the newly created Brooklyn Agriculture Subject Guide.