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  • Writer's pictureJohn Thomas

Swift Maple Farewell!

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

City cuts down Swift Icon without warning!

I was on my daily 6-block commute from the Clay Arsenal neighborhood where I live to work at the Swift Factory as I stopped at the 4-way intersection of Garden and Westland Streets. Just like every other morning, for a microsecond, I attempt to do the math on how the 4-way intersection gets called "5 Corners". The majestic Maple tree is there as if it were standing at military attention, saluting my arrival to work. It is when know I am at Swift, at work.

Last week, the Swift Maple "watched" over 5-Corners!

Still, the looming 4-corner mathematical enigma persisted until muscle memory banked my car into a quick left-to-right turn, swerving me slowly up Love Lane's gentle curves and the rocking action reminded me immediately that Love Lane's corner is the fifth corner of the intersection; enigma solved again. It all happens in silence, in a matter of seconds--daily.

That little math equation is probably my subconscious preparing me for another set of work-day unknowns, to release anxiousness. It's played out in what Journalist and Urban Planning Influencer, Jane Jacobs, called the "emotional landscape", where our subconscious creates emotional connections to our physical environment.

As we travel through our neighborhoods, we emotionally connect with landmarks reminding us that we are safe; that we are home, that we are somewhere familiar. Anything out of place can signal change, danger or an opportunity for growth or relocation.

I arrived in my parking spot next to the concrete island in the Swift lot so no one hits my car. Settling into the reception area at my desk, I busied myself in a caffeine-fueled scramble to get an appraisal of the day's evolving tasks; calendar, texts , emails, and the newspaper. Nothing was out of place. It was a regular workday until it's end.

That was when my colleague Floyd approached the desk like he always does when he is coming onto his shift. "Did you know that they cut down the tree at 5 Corners?" he asked. I heard him, but immediately dismissed any possibility of that, believing Floyd was talking about a tree near the back parking lot neighbors had an issue with in the distant past.

I had just seen the tree at 5-Corners coming into work. "Show me what you're talking about," I said. I thought he had to be wrong as we walked down Love Lane to the intersection, my nerves pulsing and my neck stretching around the corner of Building 4 to see if long outstretched branches would testify to what I hoped was a huge misunderstanding.

But, they were not there, no limbs bared to Winter's coming grip. Nothing to signify their salvation. We were confronted with the reality of their demise. The Swift Maple had been cut down. Its dismembered trunk lay on the ground stone pad in what seemed like a crime scene. The only thing that was missing was yellow police tape.

Floyd immediately called the Swift Property Manager, Salena Robinson, to report what he saw while I called Patrick McKenna, Interim Executive Director at Swift. When I saw Patrick the next day, he was still visibly shaken by the news and I knew he was going to get to the bottom of it. He had applied his architect's eye to meeting every intricate zoning requirement involving the choice, placement and number of trees on campus during our construction phase. I knew his contact list from that process would get us answers.

Apparently, the Hartford Police Department developed a list of trees obscuring the view of city surveillance cameras and submitted it to the City Forester whose crews came around and cut the trees down. McKenna said the Forester acknowledged a call should have been placed to notify us, but somehow it was overlooked. It was unfortunate since we could have provided a solution. The police could have tied into the numerous cameras we have on campus to fill their needs. They could have tied into the cameras at JR's or the 5-Corners Bodegas. But, that opportunity no longer existed. The damage had been done.

The shock of it all was accompanied by a sense of powerlessness. The feeling of loss was palpable. I realized I really cared about that tree without even realizing it. I've never hugged a tree in my life, but if I could have hugged the Swift Maple just one time in that moment, it would have made me feel a lot better.

What is it about trees? Well, let's start with the fact that they are living beings. And, we know that, without the green canopy of Keney Park's 693 acres of Urban Forest, North Hartford's asthma rates--some of the worst in Connecticut--would be higher. We know how trees remove carbon from the atmosphere and replace it with oxygen.

But, just as the branches above ground improve conditions, the branches of a tree's root systems impact a vast subterranean ecosystem. Their chemical connections communicate with other flora through roots as well as insects and animals via scent.

Trees have always had a spiritual symbolic significance, ie: the tree of life is extent in every known spirituality. They have a social purpose. What would Connecticut be without the Charter Oak? And, the tree is a great symbol to express stability for a brand. In fact, the Swift Brand has always been represented by a maple leaf.

I don't think this tree was more than 80 years old, but it has witnessed every event in this community during its life. The Maple was there when the neighborhood was a primarily Jewish Neighborhood. It was there when Black residents moved here to escape southern exploitation. It stood across the street from The Hartford Jazz Society and the "West Bar" Market when Black businesses thrived in the neighborhood. It saw generations of Black and Brown youth born, grow into adulthood and for the unfortunate ones, the Swift Maple saw them die all too early as well.

It has witnessed a multitude of arrests, beatings, shootings and tears shed from want of too many things. It witnessed the celebrations, joys, smiles, hugs and daps of residents passing by in the night of their collective struggle to be o.k. Yes, the Swift Maple was a steady presence in all that has happened here.

And, so it has been since we began our work. One of our first actions at Swift was to remove the 12-foot high chain link fence surrounding the maple and the area surrounding it to create what would become Swift's public-facing space at 5-Corners.

Much of the narrative of our pre-development work has passed beneath its branches. From art installations to bicycle clinics for neighborhood youth, to community cook-outs and celebrations to Covid vaccine clinics early in the pandemic, that maple tree was ever-present.

Consideration of green infrastructure began very early in the Swift Development process with Community Solutions commissioning the Conway School Plan for the Westland Street Corridor from Main Street to Keney Park. Next came a Health Impact Assessment highlighting ways to leverage the neighborhood's green assets. This led to the creation of a Neighborhood Sustainability Plan for the Northeast Neighborhood. In all of our efforts, one thing was very clear. One of North Hartford's greatest assets is its trees.

Over the years, our tree--the Swift Maple--has; occupied our subconscious imagery, communicated its messages chemically as a member of the neighborhood's ecology, colorfully messaged the arrival of the seasons, physically fought off erosion and served as shelter, companion and a leaning post for innumerable travelers and has served as a witness to all that has occurred within range of its shadow.

After 2 years of operations here much continues to happen and most of it positive.

In the next couple of years, we will have the 21st Century, "NextGen" Hartford Public Library and Sasa Harriott and Harriott Home Health Services expanding into Building 4. CREC will be moving into Building 6 with a Head Start facility and Affordable Learning Child Care Learning Center is planning to begin operations on the second level of Building 5. And, though many will be there to witness it, one witness will not be there. No, the Swift Maple is fallen. We're gonna miss your presence. But, hope still lives. Maybe its time to plant a new maple witness for new times at Swift!

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