by BriteHeart | 4.8.19
NASHVILLE — Last Saturday morning, all across the city, Nashville residents woke up to news that seemed almost Orwellian — or if not Orwellian, then at least Onionian: City officials had decided to cut down 21 mature cherry trees in full bloom.
On less than 72 hours’ notice.
Because the National Football League asked them to.
The cherry trees in question line downtown’s First Avenue North, which runs along the Cumberland River and fronts Riverfront Park, site of the city’s grandest celebrations. Later this month that park will be where the N.F.L. holds its annual draft, an event that seems to require a giant stage the likes of which Nashville — and possibly all of Tennessee, maybe even the whole country — has never seen. Nashville, otherwise known as Music City, is pretty well set with stages, but apparently none of them is sufficiently grand to suit the N.F.L. Better to chop down a bunch of living trees and build an even grander stage, and all for a three-day event that may be moved indoors anyway. Perhaps you’ve heard of April showers?
The ironies here abound. Just last October, Nashville’s mayor, David Briley, announced a major initiative to plant 500,000 trees by 2050 — an effort to replace the roughly 9,000 trees the city is losing each year to its explosive growth. But the trees in question here hadn’t been lost at all. They are mature Yoshino cherry trees, the same trees that bloom so extravagantly along the mall in Washington during the National Cherry Blossom Festival. And Nashville’s own Cherry Blossom Festival, which National Geographic ranks as one of the best in the country, is set for April 13, less than two weeks after news broke that 21 of the 68 trees on First Avenue North would be destroyed.
The optics of this plan to kill the cherry trees are bad: Let’s kill some living trees so that we can put up a temporary stage to promote an organization that profits from a sport widely understood to cause grievous, long-term damage to the brains of its players. Those airy pink blossoms with petals that float on the wind and fall on our shoulders like a benediction? Let’s cut them down for the sake of a blood sport.
Nashvillians erupted with fury. Conservation groups like the Nashville Tree Foundation and the Nashville Tree Conservation Corps mobilized their followers, who sent up a great alarm that quickly rippled across Facebook and Twitter and from there to local, and then national, news outlets.
A Change.org petition posted at 9 o’clock on Saturday morning racked up thousands of signatures — more than 61,000 by Sunday afternoon — and city officials were scrambling to respond, at first announcing that the 21 trees would be dug up and relocated in the city, and then reconfiguring the plan itself so that only 10 trees would be moved, leaving all the trees on First Avenue itself in place. “In our own brand promise, we talk about protecting the authenticity of the city,” Butch Spryidon, the chief executive of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp., said in a public apology on Sunday. “I think it’s a balance. I think it’s a good reminder of that balance. Lesson learned. Hard lesson learned.”
Well, no. A lesson truly learned would have meant moving that stage. Mature trees can with great effort be transplanted successfully under ideal circumstances, but these are not ideal circumstances. Their roots lie under a public walkway paved with bricks, a location that makes it difficult to remove enough of the root structure for successful relocation. And transplanting a tree once it has already begun to bud out in spring, just before the stress of summer heat, makes the challenges to its survival even greater. Moving these trees, in other words, is just a more expensive way to kill them.
We have bigger problems in this city than the loss of 10 cherry trees. Our school board is completely dysfunctional. Our state legislature, in thrall to the Koch network, is energetically working to undercut every progressive law Nashville passes. A recent investigation by The Tennessean, the city’s daily newspaper, revealed that Tennessee has surreptitiously cut 128,000 children from state health-insurance rollsduring the past two years. More than 14,000 of those kids live in Nashville.
And it’s not as though the cherry trees are stately oaks that go back hundreds of years. They’re ornamentals, not shade trees, and their ideal habitat is Japan, not Tennessee. The benefits of a robust tree canopy in the urban core are well known by now: Trees mitigate the effects of greenhouse gasses, cool city sidewalks and streets, reduce energy costs for buildings, absorb and filter storm water. The cherry trees at Riverfront Park provide those benefits, no doubt, but there are many native trees that could do that work much better, equally beautifully, and with a longer life expectancy.
When the N.F.L. draft was held in Dallas last year, it inspired some $74 million in visitor spending, according to the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp., so it’s easy to see why city officials gave the cherry trees so little thought. These people are not villains. They aren’t sitting in a bunker plotting to steal Nashville’s trees. They aren’t thinking about trees at all. They’re thinking about landing a deal to bring a bunch of spending money to downtown Nashville, a city with a cash-flow problem so troubling that last year it reneged on a promised cost-of-living increase for city employees. (Mayor Briley’s proposed budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year restores those raises.)
But sometimes good intentions can be as harmful as villainy. There is no “authenticity to the city” left in downtown Nashville anymore. Lower Broad is a neon wasteland of rooftop bars and pedal taverns and motorized scooters and horse-drawn carriages in the shape of Cinderella’s pumpkin and a terrible new rolling atrocity called the Music City Party Tub. Such tourist attractions are to the real Nashville what Las Vegas is to the pristine sands of the Mojave Desert before white people found it.
Nashvillians are not alone in finding their own city unrecognizable, in getting lost on once-familiar routes because longtime landmarks are gone and monstrous new buildings have risen, seemingly overnight, where they once stood. All across the country, in growing cities like Austin and Burlington and Charlotte and Denver, people are looking around and wondering if they still belong in the place where they actually live. We all have the same secret fear: What if this town we love so much is just the next Atlanta?
We are tired of not being able to walk on our own sidewalks because a construction site is sprawled directly across it. We are tired of the outside developers and rental-property “investors” who bid up the prices of our houses so high that local families can’t afford them. We are tired of watching our elected leaders giving all manner of incentives to outside corporations but offering no helping hand at all to the small businesses that are trying so hard to survive in the “New Nashville.”
Most of all we are sick, sick, sick of sitting in traffic. Years ago, people around here put funny bumper stickers on their cars that read: “Welcome to Nashville. Now y’all go home.” We aren’t laughing anymore. We’re sitting in our motionless cars and scrolling through Twitter, learning that when the N.F.L. said, “Just cut down these gorgeous cherry trees and we’ll bring our draft to Nashville,” the people who run this city smiled and said: “Sure. No problem. How many trees do you need?”
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Paul Krugman has been doing explanatory journalism since 1996, moving from a career as a world-class economist to writing hard-hitting opinion columns.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the forthcoming book "Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss." @MargaretRenkl
Written by BriteHeart
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