Op-Ed

Bulldozers ripped a plot of nature out of my neighborhood

I am in the far corner of my house trying to ignore the sound of trees being torn out of the ground in the empty lot behind us. But the sounds are hard to ignore. Especially those of the digger versus the healthy stump of the avocado tree, which earlier today was all branches and leaves and bird nests and birds.

I went out there a few minutes ago to bear witness to this event and learned how it works: The digger slams its huge claw into the ground around the stump and along its top edge, again and again until its fingers go deep enough to get under the roots. Then, groaning and beeping, it pulls back with such force that the whole tractor lifts off its massive wheels. It strains all its weight against the root, until it loses its grip and slams back down to the ground. BAM! Relentlessly: Dig, pry, strain, fall. BAM! Again.

Perhaps if the avocado tree was dead or sick its uprooting wouldn't be as violent. The digger is winning, but the stump isn't going without a fight.

Elsewhere in the lot — where my kids grew up and my dog grew old, where I'd sent my kids to “the store” to pick lemons and avocados and pomegranates — three men in green T-shirts hack up the avocado's trunk with chain saws. Two others pitch the branches and logs into a chipper that already has consumed a pine tree, two palms and the lemon trees, along with countless bugs and other usually invisible things that had no chance to escape.

We've known this was coming. Even when the kids were little, we suspected a gorgeous lot this size couldn't go unmolested forever in the middle of Glendale. How it survived this long was a mystery. Most of the surrounding land was built on between the 1920s and the '60s.

Meanwhile, generations of neighbors spread out picnic blankets in the flat circles where deer slept the night before. Our kids flew on rope swings and tobogganed on cardboard down the dirt hillside, breaking the occasional bone. Other bones were collected and brought home, including (at my house) tiny mouse bones in an owl pellet, the severed leg of a deer and the perfect skeleton of a young coyote that died curled up with its head on its paws as if asleep.

For 20 odd years, we watched the empty lot spring to life after winter rains, with tender shoots turning into a blizzard of yellow flowers that a pup could get lost in, eventually becoming a crisp tangle of burrs and seedpods that caught rides on our shoelaces and on the dog's tail and belly fur.

Then, two years ago, a cyclone fence appeared with “No Trespassing” signs posted every few yards. Soon we came home to find the wildflowers and weeds slashed and churned under, leaving nowhere to hide if you were a lizard or a ladybug. Deep bulldozer tracks replaced towering bamboo. The pomegranate bushes and oleander, white and pink, were hacked to stubs, everything stripped raw and lifeless.

Word got out that the house to come would be huge. A mansion, with a 1,200-square-foot master bedroom and an eight-car garage. We went to the city's design board hearing and begged for restraint.

We braced ourselves, but nothing happened. Months passed. The lot began to recover, new grasses and weeds grew, bees buzzed, and we began to hope. Maybe the mansion deal fell through, maybe someone went broke, maybe our objections to the design board made them reconsider or feel unwelcome.

But then the big demolition / destruction machines came squealing and banging. When I ask one of the green-shirted men if the eucalyptus tree nearest to my yard has to go, he points to the yellow X painted on its trunk. All the trees except the live oaks have Xs.

My daughter is inconsolable. “Why couldn't they just buy some existing mansion?” she asked, “and leave the empty lot alone?”

I find myself saying things like, “It was for sale, and they bought it and that's their right.” And, “Ancient trees were certainly knocked down to build our house, too, you know.” And, “Maybe the new neighbors will be wonderful people, with a stable of magic ponies and unicorns!”

But in truth it's not possible for me to imagine any replacement being an improvement on the birds and butterflies and wildflowers and silence of the full emptiness of our empty lot.

Amy Goldman Koss is the author of “Side Effects” and many other books for teens.

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A version of this article appeared in print on February 24, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Requiem for an empty lot" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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