A giant is leaving the 'City of Trees'

08/09/2012 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:37 AM

It has spread its branches over coffee shop hipsters and prison escapees. For decades, streetcars rumbled a few feet from its trunk. These days valets hustle in its shadow, parking cars amid the hum of the city's new nightlife.

Through it all, the sprawling camphor tree at 18th Street and Capitol Avenue became a Sacramento landmark. Now, riddled with disease, it must be felled, city officials say.

"Like any longtime friend, it's sad to see it go," said Rick Stevenson, a Sacramento resident whose grandfather planted the tree in 1886.

Much has changed since a 9-year-old boy named George H.P. Lichthardt planted the camphor tree at the corner of what was then 18th and M streets. The city's population has grown 20-fold, dirt streets and trolleys have been replaced by pavement and buses, and a sleepy intersection has been transformed into a vibrant hub of restaurants.

With so much history, some midtown residents and businesses are having a hard time saying goodbye. City arborists had planned to take the tree down Wednesday, but have delayed its removal until Aug. 22 to give the neighborhood time to come up with a fitting celebration.

"It's been there for 120-some-odd years; imagine the changes that neighborhood has gone through," said Joe Benassini, who as Sacramento's urban forest manager holds a key post in the "City of Trees."

Stevenson has a story or two about those changes. His great-grandfather owned a grocery store in a white wooden building on the corner – where the Java City coffee shop most recently stood – and the family lived upstairs.

Later, Stevenson's grandfather opened a pharmacy in the building, which was the site of an attempted robbery by Folsom Prison escapees, who fired a gunshot into the wall, or so the legend goes. The pharmacy eventually was leased to the well-known Rodda family, who ran a store there for many years.

More recently, the tree was synonymous with Java City, the homegrown coffee shop that opened on that corner in 1985 and closed in June. A year after Java City opened, a 100th birthday celebration was held for the tree. It was attended by former Mayor Anne Rudin.

As the tree passed the century mark, its presence in midtown grew. Through the day and into the night, Java City patrons would settle under its reach to talk literature and politics.

"That was the hip epicenter of the city in the late '80s," said local historian William Burg, who recalls 24-hour poetry marathons and discussions of music and writing taking place inside those Java City doors and outside under the tree. "It's almost kind of a sad irony that you've had this icon of a past generation of cafes, and then the tree, vanish at the same time."

The camphor tree, like hundreds of the more common elms, oaks and sycamores, was planted to shield new arrivals to Sacramento from the relentless heat. Camphors are not native to California – they were brought over from Japan, China and Taiwan – but are popular for their large canopy of shade.

A handful of camphors were planted elsewhere in Sacramento as the city grew. There are others in midtown, as well as one near C.K. McClatchy High School in Land Park, but this one was unusual for its size and longevity.

"This one stands apart," said Benassini.

The tree is massive. Its branches wind above the rooftops of nearby buildings, with the highest reaches standing 65 feet above the sidewalk. Roots bulge from its dirt foundation like elephant legs. Three adults holding hands could not wrap themselves around the trunk.

The tree's impressive stature belies its illness. Benassini said it is infested with a fungal disease called verticillium wilt, leaving it mostly barren. Although there have been flashes of growth – leaves sprout from some branches – city arborists said those are merely signs of its last gasps of life.

But the tree's legacy will endure.

The Sacramento Tree Foundation and city officials are launching an "urban wood rescue program," in which the wood from trees taken down in the city will be given or sold to local craftsmen. The large camphor will be the program's inaugural tree, and there is talk of using the wood to make a park bench for that street corner.

"It would be very nice if the piece (made from the tree's wood) were something large and consequential," said Cindy Blain, the tree foundation's operations director.

Sensing the end, neighborhood residents and restaurant patrons have begun paying homage to the camphor. Diners at nearby Paesanos spend their lunch hours gazing at its massive trunk, and people have posed for photos.

A note left on the trunk says the tree led a "life well done."

"Soon you will be removed," the writer continued, "and this place where you stand will be changed."

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