Twenty years ago, I planted an elm tree on the sidewalk near my house. Despite the relatively high chance that a driver would run their car into it, that never happened. It did, however, recently come down as part of a construction project. To me, my tree being gone perfectly captures just how much DC has changed.


I planted the big tree in the middle of this photo! Image from Google Maps.

Back in the spring, Greater Greater Washington ran post about how drivers just can’t seem to keep from running into a building at the intersection of 6th and Penn Street NE, on the western side of Gallaudet University. It got contributors talking about 7th and Q Streets NW, where there’s been a similar problem for years.

The conversation caught my attention for two reasons: First, I used to live on that block, and it was a fairly regular occurrence for drivers coming southbound on 7th and turning left onto Q to lose control and crash. I think it happened four times in the six years I lived there; a decade ago, a Metrobus plowed into the building at the southeast corner of the intersection, which is the reason it doesn’t have a second story (In fairness, it wasn’t the fault of the Metrobus driver, he had swerved to avoid a car whose driver had lost control in the intersection.)

But I was also drawn to a tree that’s in a picture of the intersection that someone emailed out.

It was an elm, and I planted it 20 years ago.

Back then DC wasn’t really planting trees. In fact, it wasn’t doing all that much of anything. The city was broke and had just been taken over by the federal government because it couldn’t govern itself. 

But there it was, an empty treebox there. Every DC street has a designated species of tree, and for 7th NW, it’s elms. So I ordered a bare-root elm seedling from a mail-order nursery, and wondered how the UPS guy was going to bring my tree —  the picture in the catalog was something the size of what you see in the photo. I was crushed when it came and was about the length and thickness of a pencil and looked indistinguishable from a dead stick.

Undeterred, I planted it in my yard, where it took, and after a year or so, when it got to be a few feet tall I transplanted it out to the street. And for 20 years, as you can see, it thrived. Miraculously, an out-of-control driver never ran it over!

This corner has undergone enormous change in the past two decades, with a major mixed-use development replacing the old Kelsey Gardens on the other side of 7th Street, Dacha Beer Garden on the opposite corner, and a number of new business nearby. For nearly all of the time since I planted the elm, the corner has been in a state of semi-demolition.

And this is happening all around DC: buildings going up, roads getting paved, trees getting planted. I look around and DC isn’t perfect now, but it’s not bankrupt anymore either.

Last weekend I went back to my old neighborhood for the first time in a while and saw a flurry of construction: street work, new sidewalks, utility work. It even looks like the corner building might finally be redeveloped.

But I noticed something else as well: The elm is gone.

A neighbor told me it didn’t survive the latest round of utility work, so it came down, along with a sycamore around the corner on Q Street (sycamores being the designated species for Q Street). It’s funny to think: back when I lived there, if a tree died, it just fell over. Nobody came to properly cut it down because there was so much disinvestment going on.


20 years later, my elm is gone. Photo by the author.

It’s almost paradoxical, but I see the death of this tree as a sign of life. That’s how it goes: a never-ending dance of growth, destruction, and rebirth.

Nick Keenan grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Washington in the early 1990s. He is interested in public education and sustainability. He lives in Palisades with his wife and three children, and is the president of the Palisades Citizens Association.