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An Arbor Day Mystery

April 25th, 2012 by DavidFreeland

Dear Gotham Lost and Found readers,

Today I was contacted by Aby Sam Thomas, a graduate student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, who sent a piece he had written about a mysterious plaque at 120th Street and Broadway.  After discussing it with Aby (and in honor of Arbor Day, which is this Friday), I am publishing his article below.  To me, it says much about the emotional and physical imprints we as New Yorkers leave upon our city, and our desire to honor those imprints left by others.  It is also a beautifully done piece about survival and remembrance. 


An Arbor Day Mystery

By Aby Sam Thomas

Be it the morning rush to the subway, or the hurry to get back to one’s home in the evening, it is a rare occurrence to see New Yorkers stop simply to stand and stare at their surroundings. It seems such an entirely wasteful use of those invaluable seconds. But those few moments are necessary to notice certain curious things about New York City—for instance, the tree on the corner of 120th Street and Broadway on the Upper West Side.

With the imposing red exterior of Columbia University’s Teacher’s College behind it, the tree looks rather indistinguishable from the rest of the trees on the sidewalk. It is a callery pear, with spring blooms on its branches reaching toward the sky. But it isn’t the tree by itself that’s interesting—it is the small, green plaque affixed in the soil, at its base, that is surprising. It is imprinted with the following words:

On November 29, 2010

this tree saved the lives of

Emilia Victoria

and her mother, Sarah


The callery pear, an ornamental species native to China and Vietnam, has adorned many a New York City sidewalk since the early 1960s. While such trees are known for their tenacity and ability to survive in extreme conditions, the callery pear has a special link with the city’s history.

Now known as the “Survivor Tree,” a lone callery pear was recovered from the World Trade Center site in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Although it had sustained extensive damage, the tree was nursed back to health, despite its lifeless limbs, snapped roots and blackened trunk. After eight years, the tree was replanted in 2010 at the September 11 Memorial Plaza.

“The presence of the Survivor Tree on the Memorial Plaza will symbolize New York City’s and this nation’s resilience after the attacks,” said Mayor Bloomberg, in December 2010. “Like the thousands of courageous stories of survival that arose from the ashes of the World Trade Center, the story of this tree also will live on and inspire many.”

Like the Survivor Tree, the tree on 120th and Broadway also marks a story of survival—two human lives had, in some hidden, inexplicable way, been saved by this seemingly ordinary tree.


Philip Abramson, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, had no information about the plaque, but suggested that someone at the Broadway Mall Association, a non-profit organization maintaining the malls of Broadway, might know more. But Anne Linville, the association’s director of horticulture and landscape design, had no idea about it and said that the Association had no jurisdiction over this particular tree. She suggested going back to the city parks department.

The city parks department reiterated its stand that no one there knew who had put the plaque up. Another possibility was the MillionTreesNYC initiative, a city-wide initiative that aims to plant and care for at least a million trees in the city over the next decade. Andrew Newman, project co-ordinator at MillionTreesNYC, said that while they do allow residents to install tree signage, the callery pear’s plaque was not part of their Adopt-a-Tree program.

Turning to the Web to find information on people and dated events is usually a good idea, but a Google, Facebook and Twitter sweep of the tags “Emilia Victoria,” “Sarah” and “November 29, 2010” didn’t provide an answer. While search results of the two names seemed mostly irrelevant, there was one report on an accident that occurred on the said date in Bwog, the blog version of Columbia University’s undergraduate magazine, The Blue and White.

The report said that two cabs had collided at the intersection, with one of the cabs swerving into a tree. While it’s hard to tell from the images in the story if the tree is the same callery pear, the editors of Bwog said that no one had followed up on the accident and they had no more information on the accident, the tree, Emilia or Sarah.


The city parks department, the Broadway Mall Association and MillionTreesNYC all suggested that neighborhood residents had probably installed the plaque. But finding inhabitants who knew about the tree turned out to be an impossible task.

“As much as I pass by that intersection, I have never taken the time to look at the tree,” said David Ronis, a long-time resident of the Upper West Side. His response was characteristic. Be it the coffee-seller who sold coffee everyday near the corner, or the Teacher’s College security personnel who monitored people walking in and out of the school, or even the hordes of Columbia University students who walked by the tree every day, nobody seemed to have noticed the plaque.

“What plaque?” said Corrine Campbell, who works at the Teacher’s College’s facilities department. “I’ve been here so many years, but I haven’t seen any such plaque,” said Campbell, shaking her head. She suggested a list of more than six people from various departments at Teacher’s College who could know about the tree—but none of them did.

Campbell, who had now become very curious about the plaque, approached Robert Schwarz a. k. a Rocky, assistant director for the business services center, one of the old-time faces at Teacher’s College. According to Campbell, “if Rocky didn’t know, nobody would know.” But Schwarz too shook his head on hearing the story about the tree.

“You need a better lead than me,” he said, smiling sadly.


In a fit of desperation, I left a paper note next to the plaque on the tree’s soil, strategically placing a few pebbles on top to prevent it from being blown away by the wind. In my hand-written message, I appealed to Emilia Victoria and Sarah to get in touch with me, throwing caution to the wind by leaving behind both my personal email and phone number on the note.

When I checked in on the tree a little later in the day, my hopes were raised. The note was missing.

But the elusive Emilia and her mother haven’t got in touch with me. Yet.



Know anything about the mystery plaque?  Please respond as a comment or contact Aby: | | 201-238-8097 | @thisisaby


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