A cultural landmark is removed, a community reacts

A few months ago, I wrote this post celebrating the charming grassroots curatorial project thriving on a sidewalk along Duke Street (across from Landmark Mall) in Alexandria, Virginia. I called it the ‘uncurated’ Christmas tree, not because its free-form curation was confined to a Christmas theme (in fact, the decorations changed periodically to reflect the season and were frequently multi-themed), but because it reminded me of my childhood Christmas trees: eclectic, vibrantly disorganized, and organically co-created. The tree was part of my cultural landscape, something that made me feel connected to my neighborhood.

This evening, my husband and I were driving to dinner and were stunned to see that the tree, once growing through the sidewalk and adorned with a random assortment of eye-catching ephemera, had been removed. In its place was a community memorial with notes, candles, even a framed photograph. Comments on Reddit (RIP Duke Street Tree) suggest the tree was likely removed by the City in response to complaints about the tree beginning to encroach on traffic.

The strength of feeling aroused by the removal of this mundane yet wonderful community cultural landmark is humorously heartwarming, and reminds me that grassroots cultural projects are truly valued and celebrated. The knowledge that one or more people were decorating and protecting that tree clearly gave others the feeling that something in their community was being cared for and nurtured (see the notes written on the sign). My husband recalled that the construction project from a week or two ago had navigated around the tree, the workers apparently sensing that it warranted protection and veneration.

Now the tree is gone and the impassioned outrage (expressed on Reddit and in our car on the ride home from dinner) is all at once sad, sweet, and a little ridiculous, but it’s also an encouraging sign for those who hope that art, culture, and place can build community in unexpected ways and that valuable projects can begin not just within cultural institutions, but at a community level (and perhaps grow with support from the institutions).

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