Every neighbor who lives on or near Warfield Place, a quiet residential street in Northampton, seems to have a story about the cherry trees.
The row of seven Kwanzan Japanese cherry trees sits right outside Lois Ahrens’s kitchen window. Ahrens, 74, said they have been an “integral” part of her life during the more than 23 years she’s lived on Warfield Place.
Cecilia Shiner, 38, remembers introducing her newborn baby to her neighbors beneath the cherry trees eight years ago. Meg Robbins, 70, still has memories of taking her children to see the trees when they were young. Her kids would hug them as a sign of their appreciation.
“They’re doing their beautiful leafy thing in the summer, they shade the entire side of that street, and when they bloom ... they’re amazing,” Robbins said. “It’s just a pleasure.”
Now, Northampton residents are rallying to save the trees, which the city is planning to cut down this year.
Ruth Ozeki, who has lived on Warfield Place since 2015, said letters left on the doors of homes in April informed residents that a project to repave the street and reconstruct the sidewalk, part of a multi-street paving program in Northampton, would spell the end of the cherry trees.
A groundskeeper from nearby Smith College planted the trees roughly 30 years ago when he lived on the street, according to Ozeki. Since then, they’ve become a beloved fixture of the neighborhood.
After receiving the notice, a group of neighbors began a petition that now has more than 1,800 signatures. They’ve also penned editorials, met with the city’s mayor and Department of Public Works, and hosted the first of what they hope is an annual cherry blossom festival in May to celebrate the trees.
While residents still do not know exactly when the trees are scheduled to be removed, their advocacy is continuing to the very end. On Monday, roughly 60 neighbors endured the rain to attend a Zen ordination ceremony that blessed the trees.
Ozeki, a Zen Buddhist priest, and Kosen Greg Snyder, the senior director and assistant professor of Buddhist Studies at Union Theological Seminary, led the ceremony that ordained the trees as priests and spiritually protected them.
“We held a ceremony to ordain these trees, and the idea is that in ordaining them and making them members of our clergy, we’re protecting them,” she said. “We are honoring their lives and recognizing them as teachers in our lineage.”
Ozeki said neighbors wish the city would be more receptive to changing its repaving plan and hosting an official hearing about cutting down the trees.
Saving the trees means saving a unique feature of the community, one that has brought beauty and shade to neighbors, Ozeki said. The city will be disregarding its own promises to tackle climate change by tearing down trees that could help cool the street as temperatures increase, she added.
“We were very upset about this, and we have made numerous attempts, in so many different ways to engage with the city, to come up with a plan that would preserve the trees,” Ozeki said. “And, you know, to no avail.”
In a Zoom meeting between residents and city officials, Donna LaScaleia, the director of the city’s Department of Public Works, said the trees are in poor condition.
“What we found was that the cherry trees in question were in poor condition, and we are trying to forward think what this streetscape is going to look like in five years,” LaScaleia said. “And when we identify city assets that are at the end of their lives, and these trees — make no mistake — are at the end of their lives, whether they look to be or not, we are obligated to address that.”
Residents have pushed back against this assessment, even sending a letter to city officials from an arborist that deemed the cherry trees to have “desirable structural strength.”
In a phone interview Tuesday, David Narkewicz, the mayor of Northampton, said that the city has been “consistently upfront” with the neighbors about the project on Warfield Place. He pointed to the Zoom meeting with city officials and his own meeting with residents as evidence of continued communication.
He also said the city does not have to hold a specific public hearing about cutting down the cherry trees since state law allows for an exemption from this requirement for a project like the one on Warfield Place.
Narkewicz said the city plans to plant more trees in the place of the cherry trees to “provide a shade tree canopy long into the future.”
“I understand that there is a strong attachment to these particular trees, and there’s some dispute about ... the tree warden assessments,” he said. “But we believe that the decisions we’re making are the correct decisions in terms of not only trying to improve pedestrian safety and accessibility and handicapped accessibility but also about trying to create a sustainable tree canopy long term.”
Robbins said the ordination ceremony Monday was an emotional time for neighbors to celebrate the longstanding cherry trees.
“The trees are now wrapped in these wonderful, lovely scarves. And it was beautiful, just gorgeously done. It made everybody cry,” Robbins said.
Ahrens said the ceremony was “hopeful,” despite the impending start of the project.
She said that neighbors surrounding Warfield Place just want the project to “pause” to formulate a “better way” to go about fixing the street.
“We’ve just been trying and trying and trying every day to think of some other way to stop this,” Ahrens said.
Alexandra Chaidez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.