A Brief History of Street Trees in the Neighborhood

Scott Goldstein, chairman of the Canopy committee for Windsor Square Association.
Scott Goldstein, chairman of the Canopy committee for Windsor Square Association.

This is the first article in a series the Larchmont Buzz is publishing on Street Trees in the community. Buzz Writer at Large, Devon O’Brien, goes on a walk about the neighborhood with Scott Goldstein, Chairman of “Canopy”, the branch of the Windsor Square Association devoted to the care of the thousands of parkway trees that grace these streets. Goldstein is so completely associated with the well-being of trees in Windsor Square that neighbors affectionately refer to him as the ‘Tree Tzar’. 

If you live here – in the Greater-Wilshire, Hancock Park, Larchmont Village, Windsor Square area – and if you occasionally fly into LAX from the East and if it is during the daylight hours and if you are seated – either by design or luck – in a window seat, then you know just how easy it is to identify our neighborhood from the sky. After the plane passes our lady on the hill, the Griffith Park Observatory, then lowers and makes its approach – you can easily spot our neighborhood. It is the green part.

These days Sixth Street is an arcade of green as the liquidambers are in new leaf, the loquats on Elmwood Avenue are studded with fruit and on Mansfield Avenue, the feather-like branches of the jacarandas are yellowy-green. A few even show some flowers –  whisperings of the chorus of purple to come.

scott-goldstein-2
Goldstein inspecting damage done by weed whackers that stunts growth and sometimes kills young trees.

Spring is here. We who live and/or work on these leafy streets revel in the first shows of the season. Trees enrich our lives in so many ways – they clean our air, absorb the sounds of traffic and provide shelter from the elements. They offer fruits for our kitchen, the wonder of their height and the curiosity of their shape, the beauty of their blooms and perfumes. They house song-filled birds and other critters. They increase the desirability of the neighborhood and the value of homes – to name a few ways trees enhance our lives.

Yet the season has brought new numbers – of the driest winter on record since the start of records in Los Angeles and of the scant Sierra Nevada snowpack. In the last days of March, Governor Brown enacted emergency legislation to the tune of $1 billion for funding of drought measures and water infrastructure and, on April 1, he announced mandatory water-usage restrictions. We are in the fourth year of an historic drought and such measures are unprecedented and merited.

“People should realize we are in a new era,” Governor Brown said. “The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past.”

In Windsor Square, the number of trees greatly outnumbers the number of residents. According to the 2008 census, there are approximately 6,200 residents – there are more than that number of parkway trees alone. These trees already show drought stress; the cuts in water use will probably imperil them further.

The canopy along Sixth Street is an arboreal tunnel.
The canopy along Sixth Street is an arboreal tunnel.

If this population could assemble, organize and vote, I wager they would elect Scott Goldstein to represent them. Goldstein has served as the chairman of Windsor Square Canopy  Canopy for nearly 18 years. He is still active: focusing his attention on the trees on the Larchmont meridian and the Norton triangle, now that the parkway tree project is complete. Canopy is an important branch of the Windsor Square Association: dedicated to the protection, care, and planting of parkway trees within Windsor Square. Goldstein, and other devoted volunteers, worked alongside the Los Angeles City Department of Urban Forestry to reforest the parkways.

Goldstein has personally overseen the planting of over a thousand trees in Windsor Square. He knows when a species is thriving or sick, promising or doomed. Goldstein is an outspoken advocate of native plantings. But, more on that later.

“I have trees on my mind all the time,” says Goldstein, a Van Ness Avenue resident.

“How can you not? The neighborhood is such a beautiful neighborhood and there are so many trees. Before we moved here, we lived in the Hollywood Hills. We used to look down on this neighborhood and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to live in the neighborhood where it is all green?’ Because, it didn’t look like that anywhere else. There’s this big patch of green. So, we came down here and found a house.”

We took a walk about the neighborhood with Goldstein to talk about trees – to listen and learn a few things about our arboreal neighbors. We began on Van Ness Avenue.

“In the early days of California when people started moving in and there were building booms, at the start of the 20th Century, you could grow anything here and so people grew everything here. Plants were imported from all over the world. There were few advocates of native plantings then. Of course, the nurseries weren’t stocking natives like that; natives weren’t really widely available. So they planted exotics from China, the Himalayas, South America, Africa. That’s all well and fine but, over time, the consequences of that are being felt.”

A healthy magnolia on Plymouth Blvd is dark green.
A healthy magnolia in the front yard of a Plymouth Blvd home is healthy and dark green. Canary Island Palms line the boulevard.

He continued, “When these streets were developed, in 1910 or 11, they did a pretty good job of figuring out how they were going to landscape all of the streets. What they did on here on Van Ness – which is pretty much true of for all the wider streets with the larger parkways – they alternated Canary Island Palm trees with Southern Magnolias. In our current era of extreme drought, these trees are doomed.  What they didn’t know and couldn’t anticipate was that Canary Island Palms were going to develop an incurable disease called fusarium wilt, which shortens their life span, and makes them look terrible for many years until they go into their final state of demise.”

“The Southern Magnolias are a beautiful tree,” Goldstein told us.  “But they are native to the southeast where they have a lot of humidity and a lot of water. Here, we have very dry summers and hopefully wet winters; this is not their normal or ideal growing condition. In general, you see familiar variations of the state of the Southern Magnolias throughout the neighborhood: some look simply OK, some look terrible and many of them are dying right now. This is not a good environment for them. And now we are in severe drought conditions and they are not being taken care of. The surface water they get from the lawns is not nearly enough to deeply water these trees, and there is no humidity. Now, with the coming irrigation restrictions, there seems to be no way for these kinds of trees to survive.”

An older magnolia in the median struggles - its canopy is sparse.
An older magnolia in the median struggles – its canopy is sparse.

“If you have ever been to the southeast or to England, the Southern Magnolias look very different. They are lush and glossy and they flower voluminously. Here, it’s just an unfortunate choice for the neighborhood. There are some relatively new plantings and these look pretty good. But the old plantings generally look terrible, and the obvious reason is that the bigger they get, the deeper they go and the less reliant on surface water they become – the surface water is the water you get when you water the lawn, it gets wet to about 4 inches – while trees have roots that go down many feet – so these trees are not getting sufficient water. During our normal rainy-season years, when we get normal winter rains, the water gets down pretty far and the trees get a pretty good drink, but we haven’t had that, so these trees, over time, if the drought continues, they are all going to perish – that’s their fate.  I say, ‘all’ what I mean is…most.”

This is the sad, inconvenient truth about the state and likely fate of the Canary Island Palms and Southern Magnolias that have long-adorned our neighborhoods.

Stay tuned for our next story in the Street Trees series where Goldstein will help us determine what we should be planting in our parkways.

– – – – – –

For more detailed information on trees, click on Windsor Square Association: CanopyInformation there is relevant to trees throughout the greater Hancock Park area. Also a must-read: The Trees of  Windsor Square, a definitive guide to what’s planted in our parkways.

Devon O'Brien
Devon O’Brien

Devon O’Brien is a Larchmont resident and writer who has had her work appear in Vogue, the Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times and the Larchmont Buzz.  Next month her play, “American Portraits” will be presented at the National Portrait Gallery in London. She currently holds a regular Wednesday workshop “Five Nights Five Tarts” which combines a weekly writing retreat with the eating of delicious tarts.

4 thoughts on “A Brief History of Street Trees in the Neighborhood

  1. What a wonderful idea! I look forward to more about our trees — even though I am the “owner” of a Southern Magnolia which goes from okay to peaked every year. Thank you, Devon and Scot!

  2. I look forward to more in this series. A lot of people would like recommendations for turf replacement. What are good suggestions for low water plants for Windsor Square? I think some guidelines would be very helpful particularly for low water grasses.

    1. Frank – the Buzz is going to work with the HP Garden Club to try to bring specific ideas for turf replacement to our readers, but it’s going to take some time. In the meantime, the DWP has suggestions, shared below. But its very important to remember, if you replace grass, you still need to deep water any trees on your property – that means running a hose or drip line to the edge of tree canopy and watering deeply at least every 2-3 weeks in the drought. Otherwise we will lose our precious trees!

      LADWP has a list of approved replacements for grass turf in the parkways, see: https://www.ladwp.com/ladwp/faces/wcnav_externalId/a-w-c-parkway?_adf.ctrl-state=btbzl9mlk_45&_afrLoop=965279929265881&_afrWindowMode=0&_afrWindowId=t3o84fety_14#%40%3F_afrWindowId%3Dt3o84fety_14%26_afrLoop%3D965279929265881%26_afrWindowMode%3D0%26_adf.ctrl-state%3Dt3o84fety_46

      Another great resource for all things CA plantlife is Las Pilitas: http://www.laspilitas.com/groups/native-plants.html

      1. The LADWP list of approved replacements for grass turf doesn’t include turf, just perennial plants. Those are good, but if you still want a lawn, there are still a few options. The easiest is Buffalo Grass, which can be purchased as sod. Another good alternative are native fescue mixes, which can be purchased in some local nurseries in jars (seed).

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