Places that Matter

Magnolia Tree Earth Center

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Magnolia Tree Earth Center
Martha Cooper
Magnolia Tree Earth Center
Magnolia Tree Earth Center
Magnolia Tree Earth Center
Environmental center and site of a "living" landmark
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The Magnolia Tree Earth Center was born out of one woman's efforts to save an historic magnolia tree and the three Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstones that provided it shelter. The center has since grown into a full-service community environmental organization with a wide range of programs housed in those original brownstones with the historic magnolia tree out front.

In the mid 1960s, Bedford-Stuyvesant community activist Hattie Carthan (1901-1984) discovered a 40-foot Magnolia Grandiflora tree, which generally does not grow north of Philadelphia, thriving in front of three 19th-century Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstones that had been protecting it from extreme heat and cold. Learning that urban renewal projects threatened both the brownstones and the tree, Carthan embarked on a movement to save them. Her vision was not just to preserve these important resources, but to use them to create an environmental center that would educate and motivate youth and community residents to garden and conserve the natural environment. In 1973 the Magnolia Tree Earth Center was formed to realize this vision. And, after a 17-year campaign, the group was able to buy the three threatened brownstones and turn them into a local environmental education center, particularly focused on schoolchildren.

The historic magnolia tree was also preserved, and in 1970 was designated a landmark by the New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Today there are two magnolia trees in front of the three brownstones. The taller original tree was brought from Georgia and planted by William Lemken in the 1850s. It is a southern species, uncommon to cold climates like New York, which buds large white fragrant flowers in early summer. The smaller neighboring tree, planted by the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, was intended as a replacement in case anything ever happens to the older one.

As originally envisioned, the Magnolia Tree Earth Center is involved with community gardening, urban horticulture, tree planting in vacant lots, and environmental preservation programs, often incorporating cultural arts, dance, and music. Current executive director Arthur Sheppard and his staff work with schools on environmental issues and on non-traditional environment-related topics such as asthma, violence, homelessness, overpopulation, and environmental justice. Magnolia also operates a competitive minority worker-training program for young men and women in carpentry and related skills. The center also hosts Green Horizons, an annual environmental career conference for middle school children.

The magnolia trees bloom in June when the center also celebrates its annual fundraising event.