Junk Tree Love: A tree grows in brooklyn

Tree of Heaven, Ailanthus Altissima, Junk tree

"... and the Tree of Heaven flourished. That was the kind of tree it was. It loved poor people."

The Tree of Paradise, or as we like to call it the Junk Tree, is unfortunately probably one of the most hated trees around. People say it’s weedy or smelly or messy, but for anyone who gets out into the forgotten rewilding corners of the city, it’s a familiar and hardworking friend. Betty Smith knows, writing about it on the first page of her lovely book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Enjoy this excerpt, and be sure to look for this special tree in your neighbourhood.


This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld.

The one tree in Francie’s yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts.

You took a walk on a Sunday afternoon and came to a nice neighborhood, very refined. You saw a small one of these trees through the iron gate leading to someone’s yard and you knew that soon that section of Brooklyn would get to be a tenement district. The tree knew. It came there first. Afterwards, poor foreigners seeped in and the quiet old brownstone houses were hacked up into flats, feather beds were pushed out the window sills to air and the Tree of Heaven flourished. That was the kind of tree it was. It liked poor people.

That was the kind of tree in Francie’s yard. Its umbrellas curled over, around and under her third-floor fire-escape. An eleven-year-old girl sitting on this fire-escape could imagine that she was living in a tree. That’s what Francie imagined every Saturday afternoon in Summer.

6 responses to “Junk Tree Love: A tree grows in brooklyn

  1. Nice work and quote from Betty Smith. Could I have permission to post your photo for an essay I am writing on Smith and others concerned with the street life of children? It will be published in the free open-source, Streetnotes. Thanks. Jim Wunsch

    • Darren: Nice to hear from a guy writing on the Tree of Heaven from Toronto. Does it grow there too? How does it fit into a dissertation? I think Betty Smith’s genius was to notice and celebrate a tree which has been widely dismissed or ignored. Like most people. Best from NYC. Jim Wunsch

  2. It does grow here! It is a sort of “guide” for my dissertation; I am following it in space and time to different locations. One of those locations is NYC! Were you a member of the collective that generated the wisdom collected here?

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