As a child, the government came and took ancient trees — oak and sycamore and tulip poplar — from my parents’ property. I have never forgotten the orange construction ribbons fluttering around the tree trunks or the sight of their dismemberment when they were taken down, have never forgotten the way trauma can be reflected onto a landscape.
On Thursday, January 26, a few weeks after the Pittsburgh planning commission told LG Realty that they could not move ahead on the construction of Penn Plaza due to their lack of community engagement, the developers came and cut down the trees.
I am not from East Liberty and do not live there now. I am white. I never lived in the Penn Plaza apartments, never had relatives there. So I do not claim that the trees at Penn Plaza were mine, or that my identity is tied to them. I do understand what trees can mean. I know they hold memories. I know memory is sacred to one’s sense of self.
Less than a week before the trees were removed from Penn Plaza, I stood beneath one of them at the intersectional feminist rally in East Liberty. It was January 21, the same day as the Women’s March on D.C. and an affiliated sister march Downtown that existed through its silencing of dissent from Black women and femmes. I had not slept for several nights during the week leading up to the rally. The abuse spilling out of the current administration opens up deep wells of trauma, and that combined with witnessing the silencing and harm enacted by the Women’s March Downtown triggered a massive nervous breakdown. I spent two nights on a cot at a friend’s apartment, incapable of anything besides staring at the wall while Vivaldi played on a loop in the background. I was having visions and paranoid delusions that I don’t care to describe. The only thing that seemed solid for those days was a copy of The Wizard of Earthsea my friend had left next to my pillow, for when I would be able to dream again.
When the day of the intersectional feminist rally came, I was still like a person made of sand. Despite the joy and the sunlight filling the space, I knew that if anybody looked at me too closely I would scatter. I stood near the back of the crowd with my friend. We separated for a moment, and a man I didn’t know started taking pictures of me. “Can you strike a pose?” he hollered from behind his camera lens.
“No!” I yelled at him, feeling violated and angry. I retreated into the shade of one of those enormous trees and crouched beneath it, looking so feral that my friend laughed at me when he returned. But I had chosen to sit there because I felt safe in the tree’s shade.
I thought of that tree and the safety it had conveyed to me days later, when I heard it and the others had been taken by the developers. I thought about the trees of my childhood, the rupture of their removal. I could only infer that Penn Plaza’s trees were cut down in response to what had occurred in the space a few days before, where Black-identified women, immigrants, and members of the disabled and queer communities provided testimonials of their own lived experiences to a crowd of more than a thousand. The developers took the trees in violation of the lives affirmed in that space.
Identity has a topography. A sidewalk, a street, the shade of a tree are reference points for one’s conception of self. When the landscape is changed beneath one’s feet, those memories can be erased and the collective sentiment controlled. Tyrants do this when they want to control the human body and the soul.
A central premise of Orwell’s 1984 — which sold out on Amazon since the inauguration — is that history is constructed by those who keep and control its records and archives. Under state control, individual memory is not granted the sovereignty to create or restore history.
American capitalism and corporate enterprises, like LG Realty Advisors, undermine and erase the Black lives they were built upon. In taking the trees and attempting to rob Penn Plaza of the memories associated with its landscapes, the developers are enacting what tyrants and colonizers have done throughout history: legitimizing their own designs of power and control.
The developers want to delete the story of Penn Plaza. To echo artist Vanessa German, they want to erase the sorrow associated with its decimation. They want to convince the public that the Black homes being grieved for were only ruins. They want to obscure the truth of Black families displaced for capitalist gains beneath blueprints and diagrams and promises of future funds. They want to clear away East Liberty’s ancient memories and emboss upon it new ones, shiny ones, fresh and trendy and expensive.
East Liberty has its own archivists and record keepers. I do not claim to be one of them.
I do know I won’t forget what I’ve seen.