Uneasy Engagement

A visual survey in book form of 102 street trees as they are impeded in their growth by utility lines. Trees green the streetscape and clean our air, while overhead wires are primary infrastructure that keep the city running. This examination of a local condition in the New York City borough of Queens draws attention to a phenomenon that is a ubiquitous and often overlooked feature in the urban landscape.

Following severe disruption from the Blizzard of 1888, the City of New York required telegraph, telephone, and power lines to be placed underground. From 1891 until the present, one company has held an exclusive franchise to build and maintain a conduit and manhole infrastructure in Manhattan, and parts of the Bronx, for the purpose of running cables. When the boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island merged with New York City at a later date, these regulations did not apply. Utility companies build and maintain their own infrastructure – underground in certain areas, and overground elsewhere. Each company owns poles, and leases space on them to other companies for their wires, and vise versa. Individual houses are reliant on electricity, inhabitants are accustomed to their data transferring in milliseconds. Each wire represents at least one person’s connection with the world outside their home. Overhead wires are a visual illustration of the strings that tie the City together, weaving a precarious web.

The Parks Department maintains a public database of over 861,000 street trees in New York City, recording the location, species, trunk size, health, and maintenance status for each tree. A tree is required to be planted every 25 feet adjacent to the curb, incidentally occupying the same space allotted for running utility lines overhead. The fabric of the City inevitably constrains tree growth in many ways, not in the least underground, where root systems often spread wider than a tree’s crown. In neighborhoods with overhead lines, crews of utility arborists are periodically dispatched to perform a form of functional topiary referred to as ‘reduction’. Only rarely do they achieve their goal of keeping six feet of clearance between wires and branches. Trees continue to grow and coexist with utility lines for decades entangled in an uneasy engagement.

  • 112 Pages, 102 Images
  • Tritone Offset Printing
  • Soft Cover, Sewn Binding
  • 6.7″ x 8.25″ / 170mm x 210mm
  • ISBN 979-8-9872850-0-8
  • First Edition of 500
  • ©Literal 2023