Toppled Trees Sadly Sum Up a Century of Southland History

When Robert A. Jones arrived at the scene of the crime in downtown Los Angeles, the savages were still there, chain-sawing the limbs off their victims. Jones raced across 2nd Street and confronted the attackers, demanding that they drop their weapons.

"I knew they had no permit," he says.

This is not the kind of murder you ordinarily read about, because we're talking about a row of trees. But the case of the 2nd Street Slaughter is a murder none the less, one that could cost taxpayers more than $200,000. And, as Jones says, it's "one more shiv in the back of downtown L.A."

To be fair, 2nd between Main and Los Angeles streets was no Parisian boulevard. But with a block-long canopy of mature ficus trees, it was part of a larger piece, as Jones saw it, in his rosiest vision of a city reborn. The former Times columnist is with the Gilmore outfit that's at the center of downtown's remaking.

St. Vibiana's Cathedral is going to be a performing arts center one day and, in Jones' grand scheme, the patio will become a garden restaurant. Throw in the new library that's on the books, a loft apartment building that's about to open, and a park on the site of the old Caltrans building, and you've got something.

In his mind's eye, Jones saw actual pedestrians strolling under the canopy of trees. He saw them pausing at retail kiosks, taking in a concert, or dining al fresco.

And then he saw the chain saws.

The sawdust was flying at the construction site for the new Caltrans office. In a city with too many cars and too few trees, someone was destroying the latter to make way for the former, all of it on behalf of a transportation building. It was a hundred years of Southern California history in one scene.

Jones confronted the chain-saw squad while dialing frantically for help, and L.A. public works chief Jim Gibson came running. Alas, like Jones, he was too late.

Five of the six trees on the north side of 2nd Street were history. Only one remained standing, and the canopy was no more.

"They were beautiful trees," Gibson says ruefully. And, what's more, there was a gentleman's agreement to leave them be.

It happened last year, when Jones got wind of a scheme to chop down the trees, widen the street and leave pedestrians staring at the butt side of the new Caltrans building. It was precisely the kind of bonehead planning -- friendly to cars and hostile to pedestrians -- that helps suck the life out of downtown.

Jones sounded off, forcing a meeting of city and state officials, and they all shook on a plan to leave the trees intact and delay the street-widening for at least a few years.

So who broke ranks and savaged the trees?

All fingers point at the poetically named state Department of General Services, which oversees construction, with Brian Day as project manager. As city officials relate it, General Services admitted to a "mistake." A private crew was chopping down other trees on the property and, because of miscommunication, went too far. Sorry.

Jones isn't buying it. He bets the state had no intention of altering its original plan just to accommodate tree-hugging urban dreamers on the edge of skid row.

That would have involved some minor redesign of sewer and curb lines and whatnot. But if the trees were "accidentally" chopped down, what recourse would anyone have?

"Here's this guy named Brian Day who's sent down from Sacramento to build a building and he doesn't give a flying [doughnut] about L.A.," Jones bristles. "He just wants his building built ... and it's easier to just cut down every tree."

It's hard to doubt Jones when you hear what happened exactly 24 hours after he came upon the 2nd Street Massacre.

He turned the same corner on his way to work, and the chain-saw gang was back. This time, it was mauling the sixth and final tree.

Jones went ballistic and again screamed for city officials. But by the time they arrived, the tree was half scalped.

Another "mistake" by the state?

I went knocking at the field office of Brian Day, the Paul Bunyan of downtown L.A. He wasn't there, so I left messages at his Sacramento office. But we had our own communications breakdown. He didn't call back.

"This is how you kill a downtown," Jones fumes. "You don't do it all at once, with a nuclear blow. You kill it in a thousand small ways, chopping up the nice places one by one."

But the story of the 2nd Street Massacre isn't over. City officials say they may demand that the state plant full-grown trees and replace the canopy, at a cost of up to $40,000 per tree.

Until then, the sixth tree stands alone, a wounded soldier on the asphalt battlefield.

"Do not remove this tree," says a sign taped to it. "Matter is pending further review."


Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@latimes .com.

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