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Walking in L.A.: Trees as Sidewalk Vandals


Part two in Walking in L.A., a GOOD miniseries by Ryan Bradley on transportation in Los Angeles and what it's like to get across the entire city on foot.

From LAX, I head north on Sepulveda Boulevard. It's just after 1 p.m. To my right, eight lanes of traffic hum by. Sepulveda is one of the main arteries of Los Angeles—running from Hermosa Beach, south of Los Angeles proper, across the entire basin, all the way north into the San Fernando Valley. At nearly 43 miles, it's the longest street in Los Angeles, more than twice the length of Broadway in New York.

After skirting the rental car lots and parking structures and an airport runway, Sepulveda slices through residential development. Up ahead there are trees lining the street. I'm not sure how much of Sepulveda is tree-lined but I'm guessing a lot of it.

There are 6,500 miles of streets in Los Angeles; 10,000 miles of sidewalks. Planted along them are 670,000 city-managed trees—crape myrtles, fan palms, American sweetgums, Southern magnolias, Indian laurel figs. All the trees here, except for the palms, seem to grow outward rather than upward—a nice metaphor for a city synonymous with sprawl, sure, but it's hell on the sidewalks. Los Angeles spends $3 to $5 million a year getting sued for trips and falls on street cracks, and 90 percent of sidewalk damage is caused by tree roots.

In "Street Trees of Los Angeles," a boringly titled but fascinating paper put out by researchers from the UC Davis School of Urban Forestry and Los Angeles's public works department, the authors suggest this solution: root pruning. It is, basically, lifting the sidewalk and going at the delinquent roots with a chainsaw. Los Angeles still plants about 16,500 trees a year, and the paper suggests that "selecting tree species that are well-suited to their sites" will cause a lot less damage. Will this mean only palm trees? Will everywhere look a little like Beverly Hills? (Later I learn that this is impossible, that even though Beverly Hills is lined with palms it doesn't have many sidewalks.)

I turn left on 79th and Alverstone Avenue towards homes with yards and parking garages. The hum of the cars and the air-traffic disappears. It gets really, really quiet. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, the sound from the street is so constant it's become a comfort. Now, the silence feels strange and I get it wrong: I assume it's a work day—that's why no one's around. But it's Saturday. Time and distance and quietude can disorient you that way.

When they first glimpsed Los Angeles, early Spanish explores were baffled too. When Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's ships first arrived the wind and chaparral and fires from the natives conspired to create what would later be called smog. Cabrillo named the place "Bay of Smoke." There weren't many trees then except oaks along the coast and in the valleys, and sycamores and bays by the creeks. Every tree I've been walking by, just about every tree in Los Angeles, has been introduced—like the pavement. Even if these trees weren't here first, I'm all for them. Better still to have some more oaks, sycamores, and bays to hike around. Still, some of the cracks are, as "Street Trees of Los Angeles" puts it, "significant." For the semi-adventurous walker, they're not a big deal. But for the infirm or bikers (just about everyone—police included—uses the sidewalk for biking) or just the especially litigious, these cracks present a real problem.

Los Angeles spent about $22 million a year on sidewalk repair until last week, when it announced it might not pay anymore. Councilman Bernanrd C. Parks was quoted as saying, "We have no ability to perform these repairs. The money ran out in the mid-1970s." The trees along a street like Sepulveda are lovely and ungovernable, nice to walk under but a financial burden on the city.

Just a few weeks ago Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stopped by a high school to help plant 53 Australian willows as part of the multi-year, Million Trees L.A. project. The trees are fairly tall, but also wide. They can be expected to grow 30 feet high and about 25 feet out. Planting a bunch of trees all at once is a great stunt, but better still to plant the right trees the right way. I think here the authors of "Street Trees of Los Angeles" and I agree: Go with native species, and give them plenty of room. After all, the trees were here first.

I don't see another car drive by, or anyone in their yard or on the sidewalk, until Alverson dead ends into a cement catch-basin surrounded by wildflowers. The path cuts downhill until it runs into a culvert that leads to Culver City. I think this is kind of poetic, finding a yellow-ish road like this to follow to where they filmed The Wizard of Oz in Technicolor.

Next up: Los Angeles plays itself.

Photos by Ryan Bradley

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