Endeavouring to Find Opportunities for Communities in the Wake of the Shuttle’s Passage

"My Lungs Matter More Than Tiles" reads a sign on one of the doomed trees along Crenshaw Blvd.

“That’s a lot of wood,” mused Ben Caldwell of the 400 trees on the chopping block along the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s route to the Science Center.

I could almost see the wheels turning in his brain.

Founder of the Kaos Network in Leimert Park, life-long artist, and community activist, Caldwell had moved past the gloom-and-doom lamentations over the loss of the trees and had begun thinking about the opportunities that the moment presented.

Amazingly, there hadn’t been much in the way of planning with regard to what would happen to the wood, he told me. Apparently, the only plan in place is to turn it into compost.

What if it could be salvaged, he wanted to know.

Finding alternative uses for the wood would help to diminish the pain of the loss of the trees while providing the community with valuable materials that could be used to enhance their already vibrant celebrations. Tree trunks could be made into drums. Eucalyptus trees could be made into didgeridoos. Pine and other white wood trees could become cajones. Caldwell pointed to some of the paintings on the walls around his studio. What about creating other art materials out of the wood?

It could even be turned into mulch for gardens and to be placed around new trees, he suggested. Letting the wood go to waste would just add insult to injury.

And the new trees that would be planted? He had ideas for those, too.

What if half of them were fruit trees? Why shouldn’t they provide some sustenance for the community?

The idea had come to him through the memory of his time in school in Arizona. He had been tempted to pluck an orange from the plethora of trees that lined the streets around the school. He got a rude shock when he bit into it, however. He says that the administration told him that the trees had been engineered to produce inedible fruit so as not to attract the homeless or scavengers.

“I was stunned,” he said.

Wanting something different for Leimert Park, Caldwell began researching fruit and other trees that might complement the area.

“I know people will worry about things like bugs” and have other concerns, he said, but the educational and economic opportunities that such a move would represent could outweigh the drawbacks.

Using the new trees as a living laboratory, he suggested, “we could teach kids about the importance of growing food organically.”

Depending on the kinds of trees planted, he continued, the community might even be able to generate a product from the fruit that could bring jobs to the area.

Listening to him talk, I wondered why on earth the Science Center had invested so little in reaching out to communities that would be affected by the Shuttle’s passage. Why think that science could only happen within the center’s confines? Why not have seen the whole process as a teachable moment and opportunity for engagement?

Thanks to the intense advocacy from the affected areas, the Science Center has now set aside $100,000 for an educational fund to benefit those communities. No decisions have been made with regard to how it will be used, as yet. Meaning, the door is wide open for any and all ideas.

Are you an artist? A master gardener? An educator? Do you have ideas about how to use the cut trees? Want to be part of the conversation about what comes next or help with the process? Leave your ideas below or send them to me at sahra(at)streetsblog.org. I will pass them on to Ben Caldwell or other community organizations involved in shaping what is to come.


  • “Apparently, the only plan in place is to turn it into compost.”

    “It could even be turned into mulch for gardens and to be placed around new trees, he suggested. Letting the wood go to waste would just add insult to injury.”

    If the wood gets turned into compost, isn’t it going to end up in somebody’s garden? In what way is this any more wasteful than using it around the replacement trees?

  • Joe

    Since apparently tiles are more important than trees, at least one tree should be carved into a giant wooden replica of a space shuttle tile.

  • sahra

    I think he was musing on ideas that had to do with keeping those specific trees linked to the neighborhood, in whatever form they may take. Not that the community couldn’t have access to the compost, but I think the concern was that there were other, more useful forms in which the wood could be returned to the community…for beautification purposes or whatever. The larger point being that nobody asked the community about whether there was some benefit that could come from the wood.

  • Matt

    Overall, the tree controversy was completely overdone.  The Science Center is spending quite a bit of money to have more trees than were there before and more appropriate trees at that.  Some people will always see themselves as victims especially when looking for a bigger handout.  I doubt fruit trees would survive in a street environment.

  • Roger Anderson

    I agree, Matt.  It has been completely overblown.  Probably because it fits so well into the ongoing narrative of the victimization of South LA.  I would like to see some focus on what South LA is GAINING from being chosen as the recipient/permanent home of the space shuttle Endeavour.  Is there no “up side” to this story of the space shuttle coming to South LA?  Is this really just a story of “they didn’t tell us, didn’t ask us, didn’t give us the wood” or are there also social, cultural, and/or economic benefits for South LA in this situation?

  • sahra

     The Science Center is required by law to replace two trees for every one removed…so it wasn’t out of the goodness of their hearts that they were doing that. Because of community involvement, they will be replacing 119 of the trees with four trees each. Fruit trees could be a viable option. In Sevilla, for example, a rather harsh urban environment, the streets are lined with orange trees. It makes for a very beautifully scented spring. And the trees are quite hearty…The oranges are sour, and are collected and sold to Britain for marmalade manufacturing. So, it can happen, although the trees would likely need more care at the outset.

  • PC

    Yeah, really. Where do these people get off thinking that they should be consulted about things that affect them?

  • sahra

     @78521a26d7a0634b274f3b53cf0c75a1:disqus , surrounding businesses will likely gain, but communities like Inglewood and Leimert Park are not near the Science Center and won’t see any of those spillover benefits (beyond the educational fund now set up and other concessions won through community activism). But they will still have their trees cut down so the Shuttle can pass through. To say there is some “victimization narrative” seems unfair and rather harsh, especially given perspective Ben Caldwell offered, which was, essentially, “Let’s make this moment a learning opportunity, a sustainable one, and a memorable one that contributes to the community.” The work he does with youth and to move Leimert Park forward (he is behind the monthly artwalk) is inspiring. I would never consider him a “victim” or someone, as Matt says, who was looking for a “handout.”

    I’m surprised that people are surprised people in South LA like trees. I didn’t expect that. Maybe people just don’t know the area well enough. I associate Leimert Park with towering pines–they lend a historical feel to the neighborhood. The loss of those and other trees, besides potentially lowering the property value of homes in the area (according to some), will have a big impact on the character of the neighborhood.

    It doesn’t mean people don’t want the Shuttle here. I know I am thrilled it will be in LA and I squealed when it went past my window today. Others are thrilled, too. But it is a shame to see it coming through at the expense of some of LA’s older trees.

  • Matt

    When I say it was overdone, I would ask you to look at Inglewood’s reaction to this. They basically said they were ecstatic because a lot of the trees were either not in good health, were ripping up the sidewalks, or just weren’t appropriate and now they get twice as many trees of their own choosing. Also, what about Westchester? Is it not a tragedy there too?

  • sahra

     It may be, but as I cover South LA, I keep my focus there, and I can tell you it was not the case there. Both because of the lack of community consultation and because of the attachment to the trees. But you’re missing the point of the article, which is about how people within the community are beginning to think about how to turn a loss into a positive–something that i find exciting.

  • Me

    This is a wonderful idea! The previous comments were made in complete ignorance.  The whole purpose of this article is to show that communities can utilize and recycle materials within their environment.  What’s wrong with that? I think that every community on Endeavour’s route should have a say in what happens to the trees in their area… and this community in Leimert Park is right on it, very forward thinking…but that’s what Leimert Park is, a hub for forward thinkers! 

  • ywhynot

    They could use downed trees to make a parklet. I have seen one of these in San Francisco. They become something like park benches and create a barrier to allow for a parklet to be constructed safe from on coming vehicles (or they could use the wood to build another structure in a park). What if Leimert Park was one of the first communities to do this? That would be great


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