The oak that got reformed the hard way
Steve Satterwhite

A Hatchet Job

It was an oak gone bad. It was going to pay. The dirt-ball tree was going down.

Oh, sure, it was beautiful -- too beautiful. Unprincipled, unwashed humans gathered beneath its branches at NE 80th Terrace and Third Avenue, behind a strip mall. Lowlifes sought shade under the wide, welcoming canopy. But they wanted more than just shelter. People used the tree. They abused it. They met to sell illegal drugs such as crack cocaine and narcotics. They sold cheap, quick sex, too; sometimes a prostitute and her or his john would do it right there in front of the tree and the other humans.

Miami Police Ofcr. Harvey Nairin, assigned to the city's Little Haiti Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) office, unhappily observed these disgusting displays of depravity day after night. Whenever the officer chased away the dealers and prostitutes, they'd saunter over to some other half-hidden corner, alley, or abandoned garage and continue their business. If he managed to arrest a few, they'd be out of jail in one or two days. And very soon they would be back, laughing at Nairin and the other officers who are supposed to keep order on these unsavory few blocks of Little Haiti.

"We canvassed the area every day, but nothing was working," Nairin admits. "They all congregated under this one tree. They'd keep their shopping carts there; they even had car seats under there. They'd sleep there. So it was my idea to make it uncomfortable for the drug dealers. Let 'em stand out under the sun. I ordered [the tree] to be cut down."

On December 3 a crew arrived at the site with instructions to cut back the thick greenery. The workers apparently were unaware of city and county laws against trimming more than 30 percent of any tree's canopy. They hacked away branches right down to the trunk. As the limbs crashed to the street, up drove Monique Taylor, a neighborhood property owner, community activist, and chronic pain in scores of official butts. "What are you doing?!" Taylor recalls screaming at the two men. "Where's your permit?"

It was looking bad for the oak. A few more limbs and it would be the end of a tree that was probably around before the City of Miami was born. "Stop right now!" Taylor insisted. "This is illegal!"

The workers, as Taylor describes the scene, retorted that they didn't need a permit. They were following orders, and how could they disobey orders? But she kept yelling, and finally the crew stopped and drove off. The once-mighty oak was left naked and mangled, but standing. For weeks afterward piles of branches, trash, and car seats lay at its roots. The crackheads deserted. Officer Nairin was happy.

Monique Taylor was not. Yes, the tree had fallen in with a bad crowd, but do you just butcher a delinquent? Because it is a native species specifically protected by county landscaping ordinances, the workers should have treated it with exceptional caution. Taylor, with her usual persistence (or obnoxiousness, depending on your perspective), made very sure city officials were aware of this lapse. "I believe the city has the right to trim some trees, but they still have to follow the ordinance," she asserts. "It was a perfectly normal, healthy tree; why should they trim any more than a homeowner is allowed to?" (Homeowners must pay a substantial fine for whacking away too much of a tree.) "The same thing happened a few months ago to the black olives in front of the Center for Haitian Studies [on NE Second Avenue and 83rd Street]," Taylor continues. "Trees reduced to sticks. I raised a lot of Cain back then, and nothing happened. They still haven't grown back. [Public works] isn't even attempting to train [tree crews]."

To the contrary, responds public works operations supervisor Timothy Smith. City tree crews attend classes sanctioned by the National Arbor Foundation. This case, he adds, was a matter of over-the-top trimming. In fact Robert Byrd, the worker who sawed off the branches, received a written reprimand for his "reckless behavior." He must have been following orders a bit too conscientiously.

The slow-growing oak will probably never recover its earlier grandeur. Paul Simas, a Miami Shores arborist who runs a tree service and has seen the oak, says limbs and leaves will grow back, but they won't match the originals. "A tree that's been hatracked like that tends to lose its natural growth pattern," Simas explains. "A lot of times rot sets in where the limbs were taken off, and the new limbs that grow out are weak."

County ordinances state that if a protected tree is cut down, the lost canopy must be replaced. "You're probably better off providing new trees if the old one isn't going to grow back," comments City of Miami planner Enrique Nuñez. "And it might take six new oak trees to replace a full-grown live oak." At $10 to $12 per foot wholesale, plus hundreds of dollars to pay for transportation, installation, and other costs, six young oaks would be a substantial investment. But the city won't have any choice.

Acting public works director John Jackson has promised Monique Taylor he'll get right on it. "At the earliest opportunity, Public Works will plant two (2) trees in the area of the oak as mitigation for the lost canopy due to the excessive trimming," Jackson wrote in a December 6 letter to Taylor. He also assured her: "This department will continue to counsel and schedule future training classes for our tree trimming personnel."

Officer Harvey Nairin is so fed up with all the brouhaha that he becomes audibly agitated when the subject is raised over the telephone. "I'm not going to discuss it," he declares, expertly controlling his anger. "That lady comes in [the NET office] every day complaining about something. I cut down a little too much [of the tree]. But take a look: There's no one out there now."

And he is right. None of the neighbors know where the car-seat crowd has gone. But they don't miss them, and they don't care about the hatracking. "That tree was crackhead central," affirms José Trujillo, who owns a metalworking shop across the street. "They weren't supposed to cut it. But I think it was a good thing. Once the shade was gone, the problem was gone."


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