When a drought hit Houston a couple of years ago, there wasn't a day that Kaye Moon Winters and her Montrose neighbors weren't lugging buckets of water to the streets, trying to keep the neighborhood trees that lined them alive. Some were total strangers, Moon Winters said, who appreciated the massive, sprawling and decades-old trees enough that they lugged their buckets from blocks away. “It was a community effort,” Moon Winters said. “You just held your breath that the trees would hang on.”
The trees brought the neighbors together again last week when the Montrose Management District sent over some tree cutters to chop several of them down.
Philip Hilder, a white-collar criminal-defense attorney whose office is on that block, was among the first to notice the trees falling. He ran outside and, seeing that the tree cutters were finished chopping down the trees in one Lovett Boulevard median esplanade and were moving on to the next esplanade, hurried over and physically blocked the tree cutters from going through with it. One elderly woman, another stranger who doesn't live on the block, was driving by and became so angry about what she saw that she stopped her car, rolled down her windows and called the tree cutters “every name under the sun,” she said. “I had seen those trees grow up since I was a little girl.”
Hilder called the city, and the Montrose Management District came down and agreed to stop the cutting, agreeing to hear the neighbors out before continuing. Still, Hilder went back to his law office and drafted a letter to the management district, threatening to sue if the district continued cutting down the trees that the community loved.
“When you look at and appreciate something for years like I have those trees, you take them for granted until they're no longer there,” said Hilder, who just so happens to be defending Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton against securities fraud charges. “It became very apparent to me when the trees were coming down. I felt like something was being taken from me.”
The removal of the trees is part of the Montrose Management District's “esplanade improvement project.” The management district plans to cut down trees in five esplanades, four on Lovett and one on Yoakum, and replace them with 200-gallon live oaks. The goal of the project, which will cost roughly $600,000, is to create an aesthetically pleasing tree canopy that can be easily maintained for generations. According to the management district, trees had to be cut down because they would “hinder” the improvement project — notably the Chinese tallow trees right outside Moon Winters's home. They are considered an invasive species because they can release chemicals that affect the soil, making growth harder for native plants. But Moon Winters said that perhaps the management district had failed to consider the many benefits they provided the neighborhood.
“I don't want to say I'm Johnny Appleseed, but I've lived long enough to know: It's true; your life is better with nature around you,” said Moon Winters, who just celebrated her 69th birthday on Sunday. “That tallow tree that was cut down, you can call it a trash tree. But maybe you don't see the ephemeral green of springtime. This is Houston — we don't have many trees that turn. That was the leader of the chorus on that little strip. That was the orchestral leader that said, we do have seasons. Here they are.”
Neither Hilder nor Moon Winters was entirely receptive to the idea that the management district could simply “replace” the trees it tore down. To Hilder, the tree-chopping was emblematic of Houston in general, a city constantly breaking ground on new apartment complexes and skyscrapers and restaurants to accommodate its growth, to the point that the value of greenery becomes an afterthought. And to Moon Winters, well, as the man who sold her her house once told her years ago, the view outside her home — of the sprawling, decades-old trees — was not something any builders could re-create.
“There's something of value to growth and age,” she said. “You can put in what you want, but you can't plant the beauty of age, and what aging brings to a place, the sense it gives you when you step into a forest. You have a sense of permanence. Houston should not be tearing down the things that give it permanence.
“They must replace it with whatever they can buy. But they've taken away what they can't buy."