The tree in front of our house is suddenly famous, or maybe infamous. It is still, for the moment at least, a living thing that I dumped mulch around last spring, and the spring before that. It returns the favor by dumping leaves on the front lawn every fall.
But in the past week it has become something else. The tree in front of our house has become a symbol. It has become a cause célèbre. It has become a lighting rod.
Last week the city spray-painted the tree with a giant orange “X” and wrapped it with yellow tape, signifying that it is destined for removal as part of the Dundee Streetscape Improvement Project, the city's plan to redo Underwood Avenue and sidewalks and spruce up the neighborhood.
Then that giant X was spray-painted over with a red heart by protesters who think the tree should be spared.
On Friday, I walked out our front door on Underwood Avenue and watched a TV reporter do a live stand-up in front of the tree — she's a bit of a media darling, likely because she happens to be tall and photogenic. (The tree, not the TV reporter, who happened to be a tall and photogenic man.)
I awoke Monday morning and looked out our bedroom window and saw toilet paper hanging off the tree's limbs and blowing lazily in the breeze. Somebody had decided to TP the old dame in the pre-dawn hours.
And so I did what a reporter generally does when said reporter wakes up and realizes there is a bona fide Omaha controversy with roots, literal roots, mere feet from where he sleeps.
I thought of people smarter than I and started dialing.
“You don't want Dundee to look like some new, pseudo-old neighborhood,” said George Haecker, a famed local architect who joined the firm that now bears his name, Bahr, Vermeer & Haecker, in 1971. “Dundee is the real thing. It's what a neighborhood should be ... houses set back from the road, front porches and mature trees.”
Haecker is more than willing to lend his expert voice to the protest movement that says we should keep the Dundee trees, not remove them as part of the streetscape project.
He has lived in the Dundee/Memorial Park area since 1968. And he's tired of what he views as cookie-cutter urban planning that calls for things like new trees every time Omaha or any U.S. city refurbishes a neighborhood.
Chopping down trees to plant new ones is easy, he says. Which, in this case, is also why it's wrong.
“Think about it. If you are going to go out in a cornfield and create a comfortable neighborhood, it would look just like Dundee,” he says. “We don't need the uniformity of new trees. We want the irregularity of the old ones.”
He remembers a similar fight over the old streetlights in Dundee, Memorial Park and other neighborhoods in the mid-1970s. The Omaha Public Power District said it was removing them — the streetlights had become too costly to maintain, plus OPPD swore it couldn't find replacement parts anywhere.
The Dundee neighborhood — not generally known for passivity — absolutely lost its collective mind. Within months the Nebraska Legislature had actually passed a law making it impossible to tear down the old streetlights.
Miraculously, OPPD found a parts supplier. Miraculously, alleged maintenance costs declined.
“There is also a design discussion, a presentation, where logic carries the day and everyone comes out thinking 'Oh, this makes sense,' 'Oh, this is what we should do,' ” said Haecker, speaking of the tree removal. “But the other side of it is this ... Go out in the street and look at your tree and say, 'Wait a minute. What are we doing?' ”
Next I called Marty Shukert, former city planner and now a principal at RDG, another of the city's most respected design firms.
Marty, like George, also happens to live in Dundee. Marty, unlike George, thinks that removing the tree in front of my house is absolutely the right move.
“It is a good thing that people are vigilant about their neighborhood and so forth, but it is a little ... interesting,” Shukert said. “I'm kind of surprised to see people this upset about it, actually.”
For starters, he said, most of the trees slated for removal were planted the last time the city redid Dundee, in 1980. They are 32 years old — not exactly historical landmarks.
Secondly, he said, many of the older trees — like the one in front of the house that my wife and I own — are likely sick.
I called Omaha City Engineer Todd Pfitzer. He agreed with Shukert, saying that a forester contracted by the city examined the trees and found that many were in shabby shape.
“The majority of those trees would have been coming down in the next several years anyway,” Pfitzer said.
Shukert believes the replacement of a water main underneath Underwood Avenue would just make matters worse for the tree in front of my house. While workers don't have to remove the tree to fix the water main, the work would likely damage at least some of the tree's root systems. (The Metropolitan Utilities District has said it could fix the water main without harming the trees.)
And here's what really bugs Shukert, who wants me to point out he had nothing to do with the actual decision to remove trees, and Pfitzer, who did.
The city held several public meetings with hundreds of Dundee residents at which the rationale for removing the trees and planting new ones was openly discussed. Virtually no one objected then. No one objected until the tree in front of my house and the rest of the Dundee trees got scarred with giant orange X marks.
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“I'm commenting here solely as a neighborhood resident and somebody who knows something about the survivability of trees. I think this is fair,” Shukert said. “I think this will probably be a good thing. I think the new young trees will do good things ... and probably after 30 years, when (Dundee) is redone again, somebody will be upset about those trees getting cut down.”
So now I felt a bit like somebody had torn a branch off a Dundee tree and was smacking my head with the branch like a piñata.
I was one of the civic-minded residents of Dundee who showed up at a public meeting and heard about this tree removal many months ago. I will tell you that I left that meeting believing that the trees had to be removed because of the water main. This airtight rationale, pushed hard by city officials at that meeting, seemed to start leaking serious air recently, the moment that I and other reporters started to ask questions.
To be blunt, I feel a bit deceived.
On the other hand, I have seen the plans for the new trees and flowers and various other green things to be planted up and down Underwood Avenue. The design looks nice. It looks friendly. It looks ... Dundee to me.
So I did what a homeowner generally does when he doesn't know what else to do.
I stood in my living room and I stared out the window.
They cut down most of the rest of the Underwood Avenue trees on Monday. All that are left are the stumps and some shreds of toilet paper. But for reasons unknown, the gigantic tree in front of our house as well as the sister tree across the street were temporarily spared.
I stared outside and I found a tiny part of myself hoping that all the tree saws in the world would break by this morning.
My wife and I went outside, and as the sun dipped past the Dundee rooftops, she snapped a photo of the tree marked with an orange X, some yellow police tape, a red heart and remnants of white TP.
We stood there silently for a moment in the evening chill, and we looked up at our tree, and then we went back inside.
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