To celebrate the centennial of the Grand Concourse, the legendary boulevard that runs 70 blocks through the Bronx, Irish artist Katie Holten created Tree Museum (2009), an audio guide to the thoroughfare’s rich and varied history. Awarded the commission by the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Wave Hill and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, Holten selected 100 trees along the Concourse’s 4-mile stretch to do the “talking,” each numbered and marked by a circular yellow plaque set into the sidewalk. All one needs is a cell phone to call the number on the plaque. Then, one punches in the code for the tree and listens as a local resident, gardener, musician, student, etc., shares some tidbit of information about the area. The recording for Tree #69, situated outside the 1929 landmark Loew’s Paradise, details the rise of that opulent movie palace via the lively commentary of architectural historian Francis Morrone, while the one for Tree #1, located at the southern end of the Concourse, features the poet E.J. McAdams reading a haiku about the neighborhood. As an oral history stitched together from patchwork detail, Holten’s collective approach emphasizes the integrity of firsthand accounts.
On the other hand, the tour feels a little loose. Visitors have nothing to guide them but a brochure, available at various locations, containing a bare-bones map of the Concourse dotted with tree numbers. If you go in order, you reach the final tree only to hear Dart Westphal, president of a local nonprofit, discuss the gas station that used to sit next to this rare cottonwood, an anticlimactic conclusion. Additional information in the brochure would have been helpful.
The title of Holten’s project, moreover, is inapt, suggesting as it does that one might learn something about the trees themselves. Though the sidewalk plaques and brochure identify the type of tree one was looking at—Kwanzan Cherry, American Elm, Honey Locust—the speakers rarely discuss them. Despite being enlisted by the artist to “give voice” to the area’s past and present, the trees’ role in the evolution of the Concourse is little discussed. An exception is the narrative of Majora Carter, a resident of the South Bronx, who acknowledges the importance of flora in neighborhood improvement. Of course, coordinating an ambitious temporary public artwork like the Tree Museum with limited funding and multiple participants is no small feat, and for that Holten deserves credit.
Photo: View of Katie Holten’s Tree Museum, 2009, showing Tree #21 in Joyce Kilmer Park along the
Grand Concourse, Bronx.