What do trees have to do with anything?

You may have seen elsewhere on the internet that I recently received a data reporting fellowship from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism for a project regarding the urban forest in Rochester. As a colleague wrote in the D&C, I will “examine the role trees play in the well-being of communities, particularly cities … (and) use historical research, municipal archives and other records to study how tree plantings in Rochester impact air quality and health outcomes.”

This idea was percolating in my head for quite awhile before this fellowship opportunity helped bring it to the forefront. This New York Times story about an important new academic review was eye-opening; so was moving near Cobbs Hill Park and Washington Grove, as leafy a neighborhood as you could imagine. I’m currently up to my eyeballs in historical materials and data sources, part of an exhilarating but stressful reporting process that won’t conclude until the spring (and likely continue beyond the initial publication date).

Wilson Magnet High School on Genesee Street

In a sense, though, the tree project grew from my book reporting. There I was concentrated on educational segregation, but as I was writing I tried to maintain the context of what Derrick Bell called the “near-seamless web of constitutional injury” of which it was a part. That included obvious points of housing and employment segregation but also more subtle things like deteriorated public infrastructure — including trees.

In 1967, the Eastman Kodak Co. commissioned a confidential report on the state of Black Rochester and, in particular, its own entanglement in the situation. It’s a frank and engrossing document. Here is one paragraph:

The Negro areas show an alarming lack of municipal services. The streets are littered and filthy, and the garbage stands open and uncollected. Rats are said to roam the streets at night. Traffic safety devices are lacking, there are fewer fire hydrants (though the buildings are the most flammable in the city), many of the sewer entrances are clogged, and trees have been allowed to grow and obscure street lights. Some of the side streets in the Third Ward do not have curbs, and most are in poor condition. The utility connections to the houses are in poor repair.

(You’ll note it says there that the trees are overgrown as opposed to absent — that’s an interesting twist and one I’m going to explore further.)

The disparate distribution of municipal services is an important part of the story of racial discrimination in American cities, but a difficult one to track. Tree planting and maintenance is one component of that, and it happens to leave a visible public record in the trees themselves. I’m very excited to learn more about it and to share it.

One last thing: I’ve shared a few of the book blurbs already and want to post another one. This is from Christine Ridarsky, the city historian and a former D&C education journalist. She and her staff were incredibly helpful to me throughout the research process, and she published a version of chapter one in Rochester History journal. I value her opinion a great deal and so was very grateful to receive the following:

Your Children Are Very Greatly in Danger¬†traces patterns of racial inequality from the early nineteenth century through the Civil Rights era to the present. Justin Murphy¬†demonstrates why schools in Rochester are failing Black and Brown children; his historical analysis is key to understanding educational inequity today.”

Christine Ridarsky

I’ve still got two more blurbs in my back pocket that I’ll share before publication on March 15. And now you can look forward to some tree stuff as well.

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