Civil War-Era Ash Tree Felled Amid Controversy

Despite small controversy, removal of tree goes forward with city approval

A tree no longer grows on Grant Street.

The tree—which stood near Leverett Towers—was cut down yesterday after a report from City of Cambridge arborist Kelly Writer pronounced the tree a danger to public safety, according to Alan Joslin, a member of the Riverside Oversight Committee.

“It was decided that by virtue of the condition of the tree, the tree produced a presence of danger and it is to be removed,” Joslin said last night at a meeting of the Riverside Oversight Committee, a watchdog group that advises the City on construction projects in the Riverside neighborhood.

The ash tree has been the center of a controversy over the past weeks. An article with the headline “Harvard is No Tree Hugger” appeared in the Cambridge Chronicle on Sept. 28, and prior to the removal of the tree, a few dozen Cambridge residents signed a petition to “speak up for our silent sentinel ash standing here during the Civil War.”

“The tree is down, but the issues remain,” said Kevin Whitfield, a Cambridge resident who was involved in the attempt to save the tree. “Harvard and the City Manager make arrangements amongst themselves that save them a lot of money,” he said. “The neighbors are in complete fog. They don’t know what is going on.”

Whitfield said the tree’s roots may have been damaged by equipment used in Harvard’s construction project.

But Harvard Director of Community Relations Thomas Lucey said the damage was already present in 2004, prior to the construction, according to a survey done by a certified arborist.

The arborist reported that the tree was “high risk and exhibited root decay,” Lucey said. “We hire contractors who are very sensitive to trees and the environment.”

“Removing the tree does not benefit us in any way, shape or form,” Lucey said. “It’s unfortunate. We aren’t pleased the tree had to go down, but it was a public safety issue.”

Now that the tree is down, local residents said they are turning their attention to the compensation they hope the neighborhood will receive for the loss of the tree.

“The issue I have here is what kind of compensation should be provided to the neighborhood,” Joslin said. “Massive amounts of trees have been removed due to this project.”

Joslin suggested that the city set up a forum for local residents to discuss possible compensation.

Concerned residents of the neighborhood have already produced a draft of a letter to the city manager, which requests that Harvard create an “open green space” in a vacant block on the corner of Grant and Bank Streets, “as a small gesture of their goodwill towards the community.”

Lucey said that he had contacted City Manager Robert W. Healy to discuss the possibility of getting a tree specifically to replace the fallen ash tree, in addition to the trees that will be planted as part of the development in the area.

—Staff writer Mathieu D.S. Bouchard can be reached at mdsbouch@fas.harvard.edu.