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Commentary: Development Should Have Spared St. Matthews Tree

St. Matthews oak tree
Michael Hayman
St. Matthews oak tree

The first thing I thought about when I read of plans to tear down a jeweler and hardware store in the center of St. Matthews was the oak tree. A “signature” oak is what The Courier-Journal has called it, and certainly that is what it was.

Was, I say, because last weekend, after the dust had settled from the demolition of the buildings, another crew came in and cut down that old oak tree which has been shading generations of people in the eastern suburb for at least a century. I am one of those who have benefited from its bounty.

I spent my formative years in St. Matthews, and even after moving elsewhere, I returned often to visit my grandparents and aunt, who lived near Seneca Park. They’re all gone now, and the house belongs to other people, but the streetscapes, the sidewalks and perhaps most of all the grand trees still connote home to me.

The land upon which the tree was planted was sold to a bank company that plans to build a new branch. When I read of the sale I hoped that somehow the oak tree would be saved. Surely a design could be created to take advantage of its shade. Sadly, that didn’t happen. And the photo you see here (pictured above) is how the block looks right now, bare and hot and utterly unappealing.

Of all places, Louisville and its suburbs should cherish trees and protect them. It was here on April 3, 1974 that a huge tornado ripped through the Highlands, Crescent Hill, Indian Hills and Northfield, leaving a swath of devastation. That included some of the most beautiful portions of Cherokee Park, where grand old trees were reduced to matchsticks. For those of us around during that terrible day, cutting down a healthy old tree seems akin to manslaughter.

To his credit, Mayor Greg Fischer recognizes the importance of trees to our community’s health and well-being. The threat of an urban heat island is real, and Louisville’s loss of trees to storms, disease and other causes has become a crisis.

There are few things more important to the city’s physical health than trees. They help keep the air clean and reduce cases of asthma and other respiratory diseases. And they keep the ground cooler, so risks of heart attacks and strokes are lowered. Not incidentally, they are among nature’s most beautiful creations.

Trees are vital to the city’s cultural and spiritual health. Walking down a familiar street — with vintage architecture, trees and plants and other amenities — nourishes the heart, the soul and the intellect. Trees give us a sense of place, which is impossible to replace, no matter how many shiny new buildings surrounded by parking lots we may build.

Trees also contribute to our financial health. I am certain that my grandparents’ home was much more valuable because of the old elms, star magnolias and maples. Neighborhoods in St. Matthews are coveted, particularly by younger families, not in the least because of their leafy magnificence. This is compounded in the spring (with dazzling colors from flowering varieties) and in the fall when the sprays of gold, brown and orange can be breathtaking. I doubt whether many people buy homes there to be close to a wide range of banks.

Certainly by cherishing our trees, the elemental symbol of life, and of breath, we can take a major step forward. I hope that the Metro Council will approve the tree ordinance currently pending before the body, which would require trees removed in public rights-of-way be replaced. It would not have saved St. Matthews’ signature oak, but it certainly can replenish the arboreal canopy when trees are removed from public rights of way. It’s up to us all to replant, and to nurture our mature trees.

Keith Runyon retired in 2012 as editorial page editor of The Courier-Journal, where he worked for 43 years.