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Rally around an old oak tree unearths NW neighborhood's deep-seated ideology

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By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010

It was never just about the tree.

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Sure, the old oak near the Chester Arthur Building on the corner of Fourth and I streets NW had stood there for about 100 years. And yes, it still casts a majestic shadow. But the truth is, it has seen better days.

Arborists say it is dying.

But when developers renovating the building said the tree would have to come down, the news caused a stir.

The tree is not far from the Second Baptist Church on Third between I and H streets. District historical records show that the church served as a stop on the Underground Railroad and hosted abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass. But as rowhouses give way to high-rise apartments, longtime residents say that it seems few people remember the past. And that might be why news of the tree's demise mattered so much.

"When we tear down a tree, we tear down our history," said the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, the District's first delegate to Congress and one of those fighting to save the tree.

D.C. officials sided with residents and threatened to fine the developers, Paramount Group, if the tree came down. But Paramount held firm and got the necessary permits, and community leaders were notified that the tree's final days were near.

A protest was organized. Keith Silver, Ward 6 advisory neighborhood commissioner, sent out notices to elected officials and the media announcing a demonstration at noon Wednesday in front of the tree.

Silver threatened civil disobedience.

"I am trying to be diplomatic, but I might have to go old school and chain myself to the tree," Silver said the day before the rally.

He called John Bone, Paramount Group's district manager, and pleaded his case. Then he invited Bone to the protest.

To Silver's surprise, Bone came.

"I didn't expect him to show up," Silver said.

Maybe it was the threat of bad publicity, and maybe it was seeing the tree, but Paramount changed its plans.

"We are going to work around the tree," said Jeanine Zuk, Paramount's assistant property manager. "We are going to build a bigger planter box, and, hopefully, the tree can live another 100 years."

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