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Irene downs beloved 80-year-old tree in Brooklyn

August 28, 2011 | 10:03 am

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For more than 80 years, the giant elm stood its ground, weathering blizzards, winds, countless dogs, Dutch elm disease and perhaps that most menacing element of New York life –- a residential building’s co-op board, which had threatened to have it cut down amid claims its roots were causing plumbing problems. But the much-loved and hotly debated tree couldn’t stand up to Tropical Storm Irene, whose winds tore it out of the ground and sent it crashing across a quiet street in Brooklyn Heights at about 4 a.m. Sunday.

Sirens screamed through the neighborhood, followed by word of the tree’s collapse. Jonathan Elliott got a text message from a friend who saw the fire trucks. “I think there’s a fire in your building,” the message said. “I didn’t hear a thing,” admitted Elliott, who lives in the building known as Mansion House.

PHOTOS: In the path of Irene

Steven Poall heard it. “It sounded like a big crash,” said Poall, whose apartment overlooks the courtyard where the tree stood. “It’s a beautiful tree. It’s a huge loss. Tragic.”

Irene, downgraded from a hurricane as it hit New York, also caused trees to fall in Central Park in Manhattan. In 2009, the park lost more than 100 trees in a ferocious storm, dealing a setback to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's effort to spread greenery across the city with a massive tree-planting program. On Sunday, police with loudspeakers were patrolling the park urging people to leave and warning them of dangerous conditions, even though the worst of Irene had passed.

There were no warnings before the Brooklyn elm went down -– no falling limbs or creaking sounds as it swayed in the wind. The tree fell across the street into a small blue building unoccupied except for a basement tenant who escaped injury. Not even the cars in its path were damaged. Its top landed between two of them, as if it were squeezing into a too-tight parking space.

Jacqueline Doyle was among those out mourning the tree and gaping at the spectacle. She offered a bit of trivia: The building into which its top fell was featured in the 2008 film "Burn After Reading," starring Brad Pitt and George Clooney. "They have life," she said of the trees that shade the neighborhood. The gracious brick building where the tree long stood –- residents have estimated its age at more than 80 years -– is one of the few that has its own courtyard.

The elm was the crowning glory of the entire street, said Sebastian Lamicella, who in 2007 threatened to chain himself to the tree after the debate erupted over whether to remove the tree.

For a time, it seemed the tree’s fate was sealed after Mansion House’s co-op board voted in July 2007 to cut it down amid concerns about its roots and about the possibility of a lawsuit if a branch fell and caused damage or casualties. "So many of the neighbors came out and protested that they really saved the tree," said Lamicella, noting that it was one of few American elms remaining in the city.

"We really fought for it to stay up, but God had different plans," he said, shaking his head and walking away.

-- Tina Susman in New York

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Photo: A famous elm uprooted by Irene lies across a street in Brooklyn. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

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