Tree cuts a perennial issue

Staff WriterAugust 22, 2009 

We've heard and read of a considerable distress lately about tree-trimming of the overzealous kind -- to wit, the way our local electric utility clears the way for its overhead power lines.

Over in the Lakewood area particularly, we are told, the homefolks are upset about Duke Power's pruning to the point they're afraid the trees are doomed.

No surprise. These complaints come out every pruning season, wherever the Bull City's sylvan canopy is violated in the name of power -- or anything else, for that matter. In Durham, trees are serious business.

Neighborhoods carry a lot of weight in Durham's civic life these days. That started out with trees, back in 1972, when residents of pre-gentrified Trinity Park awoke one morning to the hum of buzzsaws. Consternated citizens soon found that the stately oaks along Buchanan Boulevard, Trinity Avenue and other streets were in the way of a thoroughfare City Hall, in its inscrutable wisdom, had decreed to connect Hillsborough Road with the downtown then being revitalized with the Loop and other Urban Renewal amenities.

Further consternated, the citizens arose, organized and marched on the City Council one memorable evening with figurative scythes and pitchforks and a literal lawyer. Despite one councilman's whine that Durham couldn't just stay "a sleepy little college town," the powers that were backed off, the trees were spared and Trinity Park became a prototype for the neighborhood politicking that Durham enjoys, so to speak, to this day.

As far back as 1884, the town's first historian, Hiram Paul, after acknowledging Durham's deserved reputation as "the hottest place this side of His Satanic Majestie's realm," remarked with civic pride upon the "green lines of aspens and elms" that graced the fledgling city's fledgling streets.

By 1932, Durham had an official Tree Commission and a law protecting trees on or adjoining public property. More than a year before President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought forth his Depression-relief "New Deal," Durham's own relief agency and public-works director H.W. Kueffner had unemployed men of the town setting out oak saplings in city parks, and along Club Boulevard from the reservoir to Broad Street. The Durham Garden Club supplied the boulevard trees, and itself created Oval Drive Park and planted shrubbery along the railroad near East Campus.

When Markham Avenue was extended between Buchanan and Watts Street in 1937, the city split it in two - curving traffic around an island of soil where stood a 200-year-old white oak, and even installing an irrigation system just to keep the tree well watered. The old oak succumbed to age in the '40s, but the island remains, testimony to our town's green roots.

Even back then, citizens worried that the little street trees might grow tall enough to interfere with overhead electric wires. Duke forester C.F. Korstian - one of Durham's original tree commissioners - said not to fret.

By the time they got that big, he was sure, all the power lines would have been moved underground. or 932-2004

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