On Earth Day in April, while many people were paying tribute to Mother Nature, vandals snapped the trunk of one of the eight jacaranda trees that neighborhood volunteers had planted near a main intersection in Mt. Washington. Earlier, someone had ripped out a donor plaque near the trees.
But instead of losing heart, the Mt. Washington Access Beautification Committee has steeled its resolve to make the community's main entryway more attractive. The damaged tree became a rallying point for residents who wanted to put even more energy into landscaping public streets.
"Frankly, I was discouraged that it was broken," said David R. Weaver, one of the founders of the beautification committee. "But the sentiment for replacing the tree was so strong that it surprised me. The tree was resprouting from its trunk, and I was willing to nurse it along. But the community's response was to not let the symbol of the setback remain there."
On Saturday, committee members gathered to replace the broken tree and the stolen plaque and to paint over graffiti on Avenue 45 between Figueroa Street and Marmion Way. They also announced an ambitious plan to spruce up a six-block route used by motorists visiting Heritage Square, the Lummis House and the Southwest Museum.
About 25 people took part in the replanting ceremony, including Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre.
Weaver, an architect, didn't expect quite so many snags when he decided 18 months ago to clean up the intersection passed by most visitors to the Southwest Museum. He and his neighbors began meeting at the site once a month to remove trash, weeds and graffiti.
The committee decided to adorn the sidewalk with eight trees and believed that each would cost about $250. The group sought contributions from the community.
"The first donation was from a little old lady in Highland Park, who sent a check for $5," Weaver recalled. "I was not encouraged. But quickly, we started to get large donations."
Still, the project turned out to be more costly and more complicated than the group had expected.
Each of the jacarandas cost about $85. But by the time the group had paid city fees and purchased concrete tree-well covers, root barriers, gravel and steel stakes, the bill had climbed to almost $400 per tree.
Committee members did additional fund raising and dipped into their own pockets to cover some of the final expenses.
Initially, the city also wanted almost $200 more per tree to cover maintenance costs and replacement if any of the trees died. Even though the loosely organized committee promised to take care of the trees, the extra fee was not waived until the property owner at the corner accepted legal responsibility, Weaver said.
About 100 committee members and supporters turned out for the planting ceremony last November. Plaques were installed to honor the major donors.
In December, vandals tore up the plaque in front of a tree dedicated to Northeast Los Angeles residents who had died of AIDS. The Uptown Gay and Lesbian Alliance had donated funds for the tree.
The second act of vandalism occurred on Earth Day, when someone broke one of the other trees at the trunk. Committee members, who recently offered a $100 reward for tips leading to conviction of the tree vandals, believe the date was probably coincidental.
"It makes no sense whatsoever that people would be opposed to trees," said Lynnette Kampe, one of the committee members.
She said the damaged jacaranda is receiving special care. It will be relocated temporarily to a garden, then returned to a public place when it is stronger. "As a group, we see this as a setback," Kampe said. "But we're not stopping."
The committee's next goal is to plant trees along the six-block cultural corridor, a multi-year project that will require more fund raising and negotiations with numerous property owners.
"If a company did it, it would be a relatively small project," Weaver said. "But when it's an all-volunteer effort, it's an amazing amount of work. By the time it's done, it will represent a tremendous volunteer effort, and it will be very satisfying."
He added: "The next phase seems like it will be easier, partly because we know what to anticipate, and we know the ropes in dealing with the city bureaucracy. And we feel we've established a track record."
The museum route landscaping idea has received support from North East Trees, a 300-member group that has planted about 1,000 trees in communities near Mt. Washington. It provided the replacement jacaranda that was planted Saturday, using funds donated by the Occidental College Student Alumni Relations Committee.
"We'll do whatever we can to facilitate the project," said F. Scott Wilson, a retired horticulture teacher who is president of North East Trees. "We'll be involved in the planting. . . . We're interested in the same objectives."