Ode to Cher: Gardeners weep over willow’s loss

Workers sawing away the last remnants of Cher last week. Photo by Sarah Ferguson

BY SARAH FERGUSON | Last Friday, a team of workers from the Parks Department came with a crane and chipper to take down Cher, the towering willow that has shaded the corner of E. Ninth St. and Avenue C for more than 40 years.

By midafternoon, the tree was down and in its place was left a patch of shorn earth, along with a great void in the sky.

With her billowing branches dancing in the wind, Cher became an icon of Loisaida — a breathing symbol of resiliency in the face of hurricanes, riots, and so much tumult in Alphabet City.

She was a defining presence at La Plaza Cultural, the community garden where she was planted in 1976 by local activists seeking to reclaim the block from ruin. Her demise was painful to take in.

Even though they’d been warned for weeks that the tree was coming down, gardeners and neighbors stood by and gawked as the workers hacked into Cher’s limbs and trunk with great rips of their chainsaws.

“It’s unanimous that we regret this decision,” La Plaza board member Pedro Diez opined. “Nobody was happy about it. Emotionally, everybody loved the tree. But it was not up to us,” Diez added.

No less than three tree experts had ruled that the extensive rot at the base of Cher’s trunk made her too dangerous to leave standing.

“Willow trees propagate by falling,” Diez explained. A branch falls off, floats downstream and roots itself, becoming a new tree. In the wild, that’s fine, but it’s not a great attribute for dense urban spaces.

“We didn’t want to take the risk of it falling down on some gardener or passerby,” Diez said of Cher. “It was already leaning over the fence. With hurricane season coming, it could have easily killed somebody on the sidewalk.”

For decades, Cher, at right, was a cherished willow tree in La Plaza Cultural, at E. Ninth St. and Avenue C. Photo by Eric Hoffman

According to Diez, the final call was made by a tree specialist at the Parks Department’s Forestry Division who came to inspect Cher on June 30 and found her core rotted halfway through.

Parks has also determined that the garden’s other willow, nicknamed “Krusty,” is in bad shape and must come down, too — though there has been no date set for Krusty’s removal.

Sadly, Krusty has been “penetrated by a deep, wood-decaying ‘chicken of the woods’ fungus,” according to a recent La Plaza newsletter.

Cher was a beautiful local landmark in the East Village. Photo by Sabina Flagg

Willows have a knack for regenerating. Both Cher and Krusty took big hits during Hurricanes Sandy and Irene yet rebounded, re-sprouting their abundant manes of leaves.

But after these last tree demolitions, La Plaza members say they won’t be recultivating any more willows.

“The plan is to replace them with a different tree,” Diez said. “We’re still taking suggestions from the community.”

Artist Theresa Byrnes was lowered from Cher, while being drizzled with black paint, during her dramatic performance at La Plaza Cultural in October 2016. Photo by Sarah Ferguson

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