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St. Petersburg Banyan tree removal draws protest

Neighbors and an Indigenous rights group gathered Wednesday to protest the removal of a neighborhood Banyan tree that the city says can't be saved.

ST. PETERSBURG — When the crew showed up Wednesday to remove a Banyan tree on Granville Court N, they weren't the only ones there.

More than a dozen neighbors and members of the Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality group gathered to demonstrate against the removal of a Banyan tree between two homes near the intersection of Ninth Avenue N.

Protesters bore signs that said “Save the Trees” and “Protect the Earth” as the tree removal company, El-Cheapo, began cutting off the branches of the estimated 57-foot tree.

The Banyan tree has a sacred meaning to the group, said Alyssa Gallegos, 29, who has a tattoo of a Banyan on her back.

“They were here long before us,” she said. “These trees are no one’s property.”

The Indigenous rights group also burned sage and prayed after the El-Cheapo crew members left for the day. But the crew was set to return. The job will take a couple more days.

“To us, this is like killing our grandfather,” said member Alicia Norris, 50.

Even if the tree can’t be saved, she said, Indigenous peoples should have been consulted to perform a spiritual ceremony for it.

Related: Happy Arbor Day. Let’s take a walk around our favorite Tampa Bay trees.
An employee of El-Cheapo tree service cuts the branch of a Banyan tree on Granville Court N on Wednesday. St. Petersburg officials say the Banyan cannot be saved. But more than a dozen neighbors and members of the Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality group protested its removal. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

The city says the tree can’t be saved, however, and that its removal was arranged via the proper channels. The canopy stretches across two houses, and the tree is in danger of falling apart.

St. Petersburg mayoral spokesperson Ben Kirby said “everyone is disappointed” that the tree is being removed. But he said the city’s arborist looked at an aerial assessment of the tree and said it “revealed extensive decay.”

“The location of the subject tree over two houses and the public street is just too much liability given circumstances,” Kirby said.

The Banyan tree is the official tree of India, and native to that country, according to the World Atlas. The only place it grows in North America is Florida, according to the University of Florida. St. Petersburg residents have grown quite fond of Banyan trees.

This particular Banyan first generated controversy in April, Creative Loafing reported, when a homeowner wanted to take it down. The owner shares rights to the tree with another owner, and later agreed to work with the city to try to save it.

The city says that’s no longer possible. Mike Stackpole, 68, who rents the other home under the tree, said the other owners requested the tree be removed and threatened to sue his landlord if it was left standing and the branches fell and caused any damage or injuries.

“I’m extremely upset,” Stackpole said.

Cynamon Thomas, 28, right, stands at the base of the Banyan tree while another person, who asked not to be identified, embraces it on Wednesday. St. Petersburg officials say the Banyan cannot be saved. But more than a dozen neighbors and members of the Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality group protested its removal. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

His landlord could not be reached for comment. The owners of the house who are having the tree taken down do not live there. One declined to comment. The other could not be reached for comment.

Madhup Paliwal, 25, said he’s lived in this block of Granville Court N since August 2019 and that people would pass by the neighborhood just to see its Banyan trees. In April, he was surprised to learn about the attempted removal of the tree.

“We’re not happy about it,” he said.

El-Cheapo arborist Ed DePaul said he had hoped to save the tree, but said it’s just not salvageable and unsafe to leave standing in its current condition.

He said he notified neighbors three weeks before work started Wednesday.

“I didn’t get one call,” he said.

El-Cheapo tree service employees gather the parts of the Banyan tree they cut down on Wednesday. St. Petersburg officials say the Banyan cannot be saved. But more than a dozen neighbors and members of the Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality group protested its removal. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

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