A Tree That Is Us

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There is a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the tree of Heaven. No matter where its seeds fall, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly … survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it. — Betty Smith (1904-1972), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Betty Smith; the author of a novel which immortalized Brooklyn in prose, laying the basis for Elia Kazan’s film which would immortalize it in celluloid. Smith was born in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in 1904 and, like her heroine, experienced a life of childhood hardships that were, for the most part, remembered with affection and nostalgia.

However, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) is autobiographical only insofar, as Smith explained, “Everything in it is something I’ve seen, heard, and figured out about. It is not the story of my life. Although almost everything in the book actually happened, it did not necessarily happen to me.”

Smith derived the episodic joys and sorrows which entertain and besiege the novel’s heroine Francie from material she gathered at settlement houses, news articles (some as recent as 1942) and simple hearsay. Indeed, some of the novel’s episodes are based on events that occurred before she was born.

Betty once said: “Brooklyn is a town of dark mystery and violent passions and gentle ways. There are astonishing customs and rituals of living hidden away from the outsider and known only to Brooklyn people.”

Many lifelong residents like me are still growing amidst Brooklyn’s various mystery, violence, passion and gentleness; and, like Smith’s unconquerable Tree, could even grow out of cement…a cement perhaps softened with sentiment and prolific with defiance. We have such a modestly rich yet everlasting legacy to convey beyond our numerous crumbling sidewalks and vacillating trees