There Goes the Neighborhood
Published in The New York Times Magazine
March 5, 2006
As I write this, I have a dead-on view of what feels like a crime being committed, a tableau perfectly framed through the window of my home office. Across my quiet suburban street, a man in an orange helmet has roped himself to a healthy old sycamore, 100 feet tall. He is systematically chain-sawing it to the ground. Two beefy accomplices, sweatshirt hoods pulled up tight on this blustery day, wait below to dispose of the fallen carcass. They gather up the heavy branches, then wrestle them into a brightly painted yellow mulch machine that does its work with an awful grinding sound.
The sycamore stands beside a modest brick colonial in Bethesda, Md. The tree predates the house, which was built in the 1940's. And it will predecease it, in a sense. The house was just sold. It is soon to be gutted, then refashioned into something more in keeping with the new style of the neighborhood -- taller, wider, deeper, a structure with twice the square footage of the original that will nearly cover its small plot and leave little room for greenery, let alone a majestic tree.
I am not what you would call a tree-hugger or even an ardent or active environmentalist -- life goes on, right? -- and I'm as ecstatic as the next homeowner over soaring property values. But there is something unsettling about living in a neighborhood that is undergoing the brutal process of mansionization. The landscape changes so suddenly, and with little warning. In order to build, you must first destroy.
On the walks my wife and I take, we'll come upon a big hole in the ground, a few blocks from home, where a house stood just a day before. These are the total teardowns -- homes that have been bulldozed without one bone of the old structure left standing. "Which one was that?" I'll ask. "The cute little stucco house with the front porch?" We'll stand in front of it and think for a while. No, maybe it wasn't the stucco house -- could it have been the rancher where the old guy was always washing and buffing his Cadillac? No, there's the Cadillac up the street. Was it that house where they inflate that huge plastic Santa at Christmas? Sometimes we can't figure it out.
I decided there should be a law: Before you knock down a house, you should have to post its picture on a nearby tree (one that will not get hacked down), because part of what's so disturbing to me is the instant obliteration of history and memory. Here was a house where families lived, tomatoes grew, children played catch . . . and now it is gone and unrecognizable. The whole damn thing has gone into a Dumpster and then off to the landfill, like a bag of trash set out on the curb.
My family, arguably, has more room than it needs -- in automobile terms, our four-bedroom house is akin to a comfortable family sedan. We could squeeze into something smaller. Our three kids could share bedrooms, as I did growing up. But all around us, people are building the residential equivalents of Hummers -- homes whose essential feature is their bigness, their ability to command the road. Most of these would look fine on an acre or two, but our lots are one-third of an acre, or smaller. The peaks of these new homes rise ominously above us, blocking sunlight, stopping summer breezes.
When neighbors return, after having moved out temporarily to have one of these steroid palaces built for them, I'm at a loss for what to say. "Nice house" seems insincere. "Where the hell did you get the money?" would be aggressive and intrusive. But it seems as if you should say something, right? I want to say, "Why?" or, "You expecting quintuplets?" I settle for "Looks like it's really coming along."
The tree across the street is first stripped of its branches, then sawed down. Watching the process makes me almost literally sick. The big trunk is on its side in the front yard, in pieces. Where the cuts have been made I can see the wood, which is tinged with a crimson color. I half expect it to bleed.
I walk across the street and have a word with the man in the orange helmet, the chain-saw master who brought the sycamore down. He isn't happy. "Unbelievable, isn't it?" he says with a shrug. "It was healthy. I'm in the business, and it depresses me."
He tells me that he is an arborist dedicated to saving trees, but all the money is in killing them. He'll take some of the wood back to his shop, dry it and make furniture out of it. He'll sell the rest to other amateur woodworkers. "They'll do something with it, so at least I don't have to feel like this was a complete waste." Then he walks around to the back of the house and ropes himself up another tree, a silver maple. This one, too, is coming down.