The Pagoda Trees of Bed-Stuy

Every neighborhood in Brooklyn has its own architectural style: Bed-Stuy with its three- and four-story townhouses; Brooklyn Heights with its narrow brick facades; Crown Heights with its porches fronting the street.  The area we live in has lovely tree-lined streets, hundred-year-old houses, a changing demographic and a growing number of new businesses: sit-down restaurants, take-out joints, coffee houses and juice bars. There is everything modern life requires: pizza joints, dry cleaners, laundromats, grocery stores. Fresh Direct and Peapod will deliver, too. Free community wifi is available if you don’t need high bandwidth.

Each street has its own character: one block is plain brick row houses, the next is barrel-front brownstones. Some blocks are all brownstone stoops with stone walls instead of railings; on other blocks, cast iron railings in differing states of (dis)repair. Sometimes the railings are wrought iron, a mix of new and old, especially where the rusted-out cast iron has been replaced with its less ornate cousin.

Directly in front of our house is a Japanese pagoda tree — Styphnolobium japonicum — that rises above the roof line and spreads before the neighboring houses, about sixty feet across. It’s a beautiful tree, tall and broad, shading the sidewalk and street, with white flowers that blossom for weeks. The tree flowers through most of the summer, so that every day in June and July — and much of August, too — someone must sweep the sidewalk to clear the carpet that will, if it rains, turn slick and become a slip hazard. Each morning I see my neighbor on one side sweeping in front of his house; sometimes he sweeps ours, too, and sometimes we sweep his. The gutter is thick with the flowers all week, waiting for the Friday morning street sweeping.

The house on the other side — immediately to the east — is vacant. Not abandoned, not derelict, just empty while the owner-siblings decide what to do with it. As a result the sidewalk in front is, for the most part, unswept; occasionally one or another of us will continue down the street to clear the walkway in front of all three houses. But the patio is another story: 225 square feet of wet flowers, now turned brackish and muddy with the rain from seasonal showers and tropical storms. The odor is of wet hay and horse barns, of mown fields and stalls that desperately need mucking-out.

The flowers have all fallen, now, and Henri last week cleaned up some of the mess; Ida promises to do more. Hercules redirected two rivers and cleansed the Augean stables in a day. Here in Brooklyn, the same cleansing requires at least two tropical storms and a wait in between.

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