In a state named for George Washington, another elected leader is debating whether to chop down several cherry trees.
Unlike the legend of Washington downing a cherry tree in his yard, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell is contemplating the fate of eight very real, well-loved cherry trees lining the street that leads to Pike Place Market.
The 40-year-old trees were originally scheduled to be removed from the 100 block of Pike Street on Monday as a part of a pedestrian- and cyclist-centric redesign of the Pike-Pine corridor near the city’s waterfront. But the trees were spared, at least temporarily, by Harrell at the last minute after an outpouring of support by those who value the history of the market and the cultural significance of the trees.
“Over the weekend, the Mayor’s Office heard a wide array of perspectives on the trees from constituents,” Jamie Housen, director of communications for Harrell, wrote in an email Wednesday. “As a result, the Mayor’s Office asked for a representative to be included in a meeting with stakeholders that occurred this morning.”
Representatives from Save the Market Entrance, Market merchants and members of the Japanese American Citizens League of Seattle were among concerned residents who met Wednesday with representatives of Harrell’s office, the Office of the Waterfront and Civic Projects and District 7 Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents downtown, including the Market.
“At that meeting, it was reiterated the important historical significance the cherry trees have to the Japanese community, particularly as it ties into the history with Pike Place Market,” Housen said. “The stakeholder process will continue this week with additional engagement from the Mayor’s Office.”
Records by the city identify the trees as Columnar Sargent cherries, but according to research by local author Taha Ebrahimi, whose book documenting Seattle street trees will publish in 2024, those on Pike are Kwanzan cherry trees and are among the oldest recorded in the city’s downtown.
Cherry trees are significant in Japanese culture for a number of reasons, representing symbols of renewal and the natural life cycle. They became increasingly relevant in Seattle in 1950, when Japan gifted the city a group of cherry trees to replace those that had been destroyed during World War II when thousands of people of Japanese descent on the West Coast were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to incarceration camps.
In 1976, then-Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Miki, who had been a student at the University of Washington in the 1930s, gave 1,000 cherry trees to Seattle, which led to the founding of the Seattle Cherry Blossom Festival.
Kyle Kinoshita, co-president of the Seattle chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, said that his group was only made aware of the plan to remove the trees on Sunday night, and learned they were scheduled to be uprooted either Monday or Tuesday. He is concerned that the decision to remove the trees is an “abrupt and insensitive” way to handle trees with cultural symbolism.
“The whole approach seems to be tone-deaf in the sense that if you have something that was planted ceremoniously or to commemorate something, you don’t simply treat it as you would, say, [a] blackberry patch or something like that,” Kinoshita said Wednesday.
“I think it’s unfortunate that during these projects, Seattle sometimes completely overlooks historical significance,” Kinoshita added. “And that’s especially true in communities of color.”
Last week, Lauren Stensland, a spokesperson for Waterfront Seattle, said that the plan to replace the cherry trees with hybrid elms — for their longer life span in an urban setting — was the result of a public process.
But after hearing concerns over the weekend, city officials have scheduled a second meeting with Kinoshita and others for Thursday morning.
Save the Market Entrance President Ruth Danner said city officials have to look for a way to preserve the trees.
On Tuesday, she said she was rooting for the trees to stay put and to be better maintained, but would be open to their being replanted somewhere else in the city where they could be honored. If they have to be removed, she said, she hoped the city would at least leave them in place to bloom one more time this spring.
“I felt really good about it; it was a very positive meeting,” Danner said, praising Harrell and Lewis for taking the time to receive additional feedback. “But after hearing from the Japanese American community, I think it’s increasingly important we leave the trees how they are.”
While she appreciated the extension, Danner said she felt she was “heard but not really listened to” by representatives of the city’s waterfront office.
Laid out in plans for the $17.5 million Pike Pine improvement project, new hybrid elms, which are considered more resilient trees, would replace the existing cherries.
At the Wednesday meeting, participants said, Office of the Waterfront and Civic Projects staff members suggested several potential options, including replacing every removed tree with three of the new trees; giving the wood of the removed cherry trees to artists in the Market to repurpose; planting new cherry trees along the waterfront; or giving away cuttings for propagation.
After the meeting, Kinoshita said the mitigation plan seemed “hastily put together” and “not terribly sensitive” to his concerns.
“We have to seriously look at the survivability and conservation of these trees before we could consider any alternative,” Kinoshita added.
A spokesperson for the Office of Waterfront and Civic Projects said Wednesday that the city is still “still assessing what solutions [it] can bring to the community and [expects] to have more details to share in the next few days.”
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