On the English Elm of Washington Heights


It is not just the old architecture of Washington Heights that sends us spinning back in time to a period that was — if nothing else — more grand and spacious than what we see now. Take the corner of 163rd and St. Nicholas, just north of Amsterdam, which is one of the ugliest intersections in the neighborhood, thanks to a pharmacy that occupies the triangular plot just to the south but which has been now abandoned for several years. (We were once informed by a Community Board 12 member that this land was slated to be turned into a city park, but a parks representative later denied the rumor, and not without indignation at the implication that the local kids lack sufficient playgrounds; in any case, like so much around here, the pharmacy sits rotting and abandoned to this day.)

Walking north past this boarded-up blight, the corner at first seems relatively unremarkable; on the west side of the avenue, under a series of decaying pre-war apartment palaces, we find the usual mix of bodegas and take-out joints, none of which lifts the barren and ominous atmosphere of the area, accentuated by the piles of trash on the sidewalks and the groups of thugs we pass on the corner. The eastern side of the street is quieter; here we find a very bland post-war housing project, which ugly as it is at least has the benefit of being no more than four stories tall and thus that much more humane than the Robert Moses monstrosities that plague uptown Manhattan.

Still, we are not here to greet the architecture, but to dream of a past some 230 years ago, when the land was part of the Morris-Jumel estate, the very spot from which George Washington watched the British take New York city in the early hours of the Revolutionary War. The mansion of course is still standing — we have discussed this before — but even older than this is what we now stop to admire; here, just north of the eastern corner of 163rd Street we confront an English Elm that is one of the oldest and tallest trees in the city; we have also heard it referred to as — simply — “The Dinosaur.”

We approach the tree in awe and reverence; we circle it slowly (it is close to six feet in diameter*) and stare up into its infinite branches (it is 110 feet tall*); we imagine George crying bitter tears of defeat in this very spot (for we know the tree was there at the time) and making vows of revenge. Time passes and the dream lifts; we remember where we are and feel indignant on behalf of the tree; it seems cruel and unfair that this remarkable specimen of infinite age and beauty should have been made to witness this most brutal transformation of the surrounding landscape from idyllic pasture to urban ghetto!

We wait a few more minutes and the feeling passes. The tree is clearly unmoved by our pity; it longs for nothing but light and water and nutrients from the soil; and doesn’t its very existence testify to the satisfaction of these longings? Suddenly, we too feel pleasantly old and resigned, unconcerned by the ongoing travails of life as it unfolds around us.

English Elm
View of English Elm — aka “The Dinosaur” — at St. Nicholas and 163rd Street, looking south, taken on 11/7/07.

*Tree measurements provided by Edward Sibley Barnard, New York City Trees (Columbia University Press 2002). (We have a signed edition.)

Postscript: The New York Times City Room has also reported that this tree is one of only twenty-five from around the city that has been selected to be reproduced via tree grafting/cloning techniques with the thought to plant identical trees in a few years. Although we are disappointed that Bravo did not make this selection process a reality show, we feel honored to be acquainted with such a deserving winner!

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