Roots in South L.A.

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Toni Ann Johnson is the Humanitas Prize-winning screenwriter of the films "Crown Heights" and "Ruby Bridges." She is a neighborhood council board member in Southwest Los Angeles.

My initial interest in trees was selfish. I’d read that they boosted property value, and Trees for a Green LA was giving them free to homeowners who agreed to take a mandatory class in tree planting and care. It was only an hour. A free boost in property value was worth that.

The workshop was held in the Westchester Community Center and taught by a handsome, longhaired Latino in his late 20s. The passion and pride with which this young man taught us the benefits of trees moved me. Erudite and eloquent, he described his immigrant grandfather, a gardener, as someone who though not formally educated had great respect for the Earth and had become an arborist. As he spoke of the beauty of planting a young tree, nurturing it to maturity, basking in its shade, purified air and divine loveliness, it was as if a new spirit took root inside me.

He showed us images of tree-lined streets in Brentwood, Beverly Hills and Bel-Air and explained that one of the hallmarks of wealthy areas was an abundance of green space. Low-income areas, on the other hand, have little respite from concrete. Greening a community, he suggested, was a path to revitalization. Tree-lined areas attract businesses and home buyers; they enhance communities and improve quality of life.


I left the workshop a convert. Soon known as the Tree Lady of my South Los Angeles neighborhood, I passed out fliers promoting Trees for a Green LA, and I encouraged others to plant away. My neighbors, mostly retired, were skeptical. They cautioned about the damage trees would cause to my plumbing.

Zora, diminutive and in her late 70s, shook her finger at me. “Be careful what you plant in front of your house. Those roots gon’ grow up your toilet and scratch you on the butt.” Thurman, also retired, marched out frowning as my spouse dug the hole for our new bottle brush tree. “That red mess gonna end up on my lawn?” he asked, already certain of the answer. The boys down the street laughed at the new trees and called them twigs. But as they began to flourish, people complimented them. A neighbor on the next block took the class and got a tree, and one of her neighbors across the street did the same.

Greening the street remained a battle, though. At one of our block-club meetings, a neighbor who had elegant, mature trees on her parkway asked for help finding out how to have them cut down. The roots were cracking her driveway. Another neighbor griped about how the trees attracted birds that defecated on her car.

In 2007, I managed to get nine trees planted on either side of my block. Today, three of those trees are dead, and one is dying. It pains me, but five of them are still thriving. That’s five more than we had. I try to look on the bright side, otherwise I’d wither and die myself.

A negative attitude toward trees is not uncommon in South L.A. And to be fair, most of the issues my neighbors warned me about were true. But I still love trees. I still believe my community would thrive more if we had more of them. And I’m not alone. There are people here who recognize the benefits and who want the trees, but it’s such a struggle to enlighten and move the nonbelievers that sometimes we want to give up, or at least take a break.

For two years I tried to get our local Ralphs to plant trees on the sidewalk in front of the store. I offered to work with a nonprofit that would cut the concrete, plant and provide the trees for free. All the store would have to do was water them. But the director of store operations declined. The store refused to take responsibility for watering the trees. This seems unjust, considering that the Westside Ralphs markets I drive past all seem to have irrigation systems. I did a survey of all the Ralphs within a 10-mile radius of ours, and the only other store I could find with no green space was also in South L.A.


I keep at it, though, despite the odds of victory seeming slim, because I love South L.A. I love the people here, and I envision a lush and beautiful community where trees and people can flourish.