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Tree Housing

Last month, my neighbor cut down the huge lovely elm in his back yard because it was diseased. I was home when the tree choppers came. My neighbor and I looked at one another through our glass doors and put our hands over our hearts. “Sad day,” I could see him mouth. When I stepped outside the door, the tree men said, “Stay inside,” in stern voices as a huge limb came tumbling down.

I've always admired Oak Park's trees, but that's not why we moved here from the American West twenty-some years ago. We were drawn to the community who fought redlining and racism to build diverse and equitable neighborhoods.


My neighbor works for the Village of Oak Park. He’s the kind of person who knows his trees, knows their shapes, leaves, and bark, knows their names and has a special relationship with the varieties. Besides oaks, linden, maple, serviceberry, alder, birch, pear, bald cypress, pagoda tree, sweetgum, coffee tree, catalpa, poplar, honey locust, filbert, yellowwood, rubber, tulip, crabapple, and magnolia grow along the parkways and public spaces, in people’s backyards, side yards, and front yards. When his elm got sick several years ago, he was devastated. My husband I watched as tree doctors, including the village arborist, came to diagnose it and offer suggestions for its healing. He spent almost two years trying different remedies.


I’ve learned more about Oak Park’s redlining practices and the fight to end them since we moved here. My neighbors, my daughter’s friends at Oak Park River Forest High School, the local museum, books like Austin Boulevard, the television miniseries This Is America, the documentary What Went Wrong in Chicago? America's Most Segregated City, Ta-Nahesi Coate’s article “The Case For Reparations,” and the woman from Baird and Warner Real Estate who sold us our house have shaped what I know about the village and Chicago's segregation practices.

In the 1960s, when Chicago’s city planners built public housing to continue segregation, and as redlining persisted unabated, a sizable portion of the people of Oak Park took action. Inspired by Civil Rights activists, black and white Oak Parkers staged demonstrations, led grassroots campaigns, educational meetings, and held fair housing rallies and sit-ins at real estate offices (realtors were complicit in segregating neighborhoods). They carried signs that read: “Closed to Negroes since 1917” as they marched down Lake Street, stopping at the Baird and Warner offices on North Avenue. The fair housing fight set neighbors against one another. I read letters in the local museum from 1963 protesting "integration." I felt sick when I saw photos of Dr. Percy Julian's firebombed house. Yet on May 6, 1968, three weeks after the national Fair Housing Act passed, Oak Park signed their own Fair Housing Ordinance.


At the same time as my neighbor’s elm started to wither, the lilac in our backyard took sick. It’s a tall lilac, and it grows up straight and proud, unlike many lilacs, which are bushy and sprawling. But the last two years, she drooped under a thick dusty gray mold. We asked our neighbor for the name of his tree doctor. We scoured the internet for information. Sometimes, we found out, lilacs can contract a mold disease.


I supposed I’ve been paying attention to my human neighbors this year more than ever because during the pandemic, I’ve been home instead of traveling. We talk more over fences or from opposite sidewalks. We have smiling eyes at the grocery store. I started noticing my tree neighbors more, too. Early this spring, my husband said maybe we should cut our lilac down. But in May, after the elm was gone, the lilac rallied, growing the fullest, most luscious blooms she’s ever produced. One flowery branch hung over the walk, asking to be noticed, acknowledged. She threw her purply-white scent everywhere, drenching us with love. “She’s trying so hard,” I said to my husband. “This year of all years, she’s working to overcome the disease and share her beauty.” Instead of cutting her down, we watered her every day and lovingly spoke to her.


I didn’t make the connection between the elm and the lilac until later, that they may have shared a sickness. I somehow forgot how interconnected we all are. I didn’t consider what I already knew, that enormous mycorrhizal networks exist between neighboring trees. I’d learned this from a documentary called The Mother Tree Project. Through mycelium or fungal systems under the Earth, trees interact with their neighbors, and it seems they do a better job than humans at this. They share resources, help seedlings grow, and alert each other to threats. They don’t view one another as individuals who are competitors for resources but as communal kin–maples, lindens, magnolias, elms, lilacs, and an ancient bur oak–a diverse collectivity.

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