Many Trees Do Not Grow in Brookland

Some can remember when trees grew fully and lined 12th Street in Brookland.
Some can remember when trees grew fully and lined 12th Street in Brookland. (Photos Courtesy Of Jeff Wilson)
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By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 24, 2008

An invisible line divides the Washington region, and it has to do with power.

Not the political kind, the electrical kind. There are those who get it from wood utility poles, and those who draw it from underground.

The Northeast neighborhood of Brookland is on the utility pole side of the divide, and many residents want to change that. Yesterday, about 100 Brooklanders wearing green T-shirts marched down the area's main drag of 12th Street NE demanding that the city take $10.5 million already budgeted for streetscape improvements and use it to bury utility lines.

They said a big reason the commercial hub lacks vibrancy is because its trees, severed and misshapen to accommodate the utility wires, are so grotesque.

"There's the 'V' tree," said Jeff Wilson, president of the Greater Brookland Garden Club, as he walked on 12th Street in the harsh midafternoon sun last Thursday.

The mature ginkgo's branches part unnaturally in a wide V shape, making way for three black wires connected to a series of telephone poles lining the street.

Directly across the road is another type of tree common in Brookland: the crownless variety, decapitated right below the wires with the stub of the trunk tilting askew like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The pruning is courtesy of Pepco, the local electricity company. Pepco officials say cutting is necessary to keep the lights on at the restaurants and hair salons on the block as well as the area's homes.

"We're trying to provide the most reliable service possible. If a tree sways in a storm and branches break, it can take down the line," said Bob Hainey, a spokesman for the company.

The blight caused by tree trimming is not exclusive to Brookland. Several bills dealing with utility lines and vegetation maintenance were considered by the Maryland General Assembly last session.

Burying utility cables below street level usually happens in the dense center of cities because it is more efficient and safer for transmitting the large volume of energy needed for tall office buildings.

In the District, residential areas close to downtown, such as Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights, also have underground cables, but the price tag of converting an outlying neighborhood is quite high. Pepco officials said the cost can be up to $8 million a mile, because the poles also carry phone, cable, streetlight and traffic signal wires.

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