Boston’s Magnolia Queen

Laura Dwight started keeping a mental inventory of all the ways her once great neighborhood in Boston’s Back Bay was headed for the garbage chute– crumbling front stoops, broken gates, dirt and litter patches passing for gardens and flower beds. She lived in the Back Bay, the tidy track of streets surrounding Newbury St, Boston’s long boulevard made up of couture boutiques, spas, and swanky restaurants, during the 1960s when the neighborhood was dangerously close to losing its luster as one of the city’s most prized areas. Instead of complaining (the path of least resistance and maximum annoyance), she made it her business to do something about it, becoming something of a beautification vigilante, minus the mask and secret underground lair.

The first thing she did was to get involved with The Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB), a group of residents committed to restoring and maintaining the stately nineteenth-century brownstone properties lining the streets of the neighborhood. She helped organize garden and home tours. She ran “back and front yard” competitions with prizes for the most beautiful outdoor properties, which was basically an ingenious way to “curb shame” residents into stepping up their game to make their properties presentable. But the biggest beautification coup Laura pulled off in the Back Bay and, it turns out, for the city overall, was getting people to plant magnolia trees in their front yards.

When I read about this, a couple of things came to mind. The first being that what I know of magnolia trees I associate both with the plucky women in the movie Steel Magnolias (which triggered an ill-advised trip through a YouTube wormhole watching clips of the movie and texting Shirley MacLaine’s best zingers to my girlfriends) and with the grand estates and quaint, ancient towns nestled in the deep south where even in February it’s a balmy 68 degrees. That magnolias could attempt to tough it out in the mean, frosty northern climate of Boston felt more than a little improbable.

The second was the simple “how” of this whole enterprise. Boston, like many cities, had to institute a law requiring dog owners to pick up after their pooches. In other words, the city had to make it illegal for people to be jerks and treat the city like their personal trash can, something that my three-year-old nephew already grasps pretty easily without the threat of the long arm of the law coming for him. How did Laura Dwight think she was going to get a bunch of ornery-ass Bostonians to do something as seemingly impractical as plant trees in their yards?

Easy. She was going to ask them.

Laura went door to door canvassing the neighborhood on her own. She spoke with all kinds of tenants—homeowners old and young, landlords, student renters—giving them a pitch for this neighborhood-wide improvement project that went something like this:

Laura would provide planting materials and labor. All the person had to do was foot the bill for a tree–$8 for a small tree and $20 for a larger, slightly more established tree—that would be delivered right to the person’s door. I rarely answer the door to anyone who remotely looks like they’re hawking anything be it energy savings, better Internet, or a new religion guaranteed to make me ten pounds thinner and fifteen years younger. But if someone showed up shilling trees for my front yard, I think I’d hear them out.

A lot of people not only listened to Laura, they signed up for their batch of dirt and new green bling for their yard. She worked with her fellow NABB members to organize efforts and to identify the right type of magnolias that could withstand Boston’s cold springs and still produce fantastic blooms. Word spread about the planting and some people really embraced the spirit of Laura’s mission. They not only bought trees for their yards, but they purchased trees to “donate” to friends who lived on adjacent streets.

Laura’s efforts continued between 1963 and 1965, adding magnificent dogwood trees along shadier sides of the streets. More than half a century later, Laura’s eco-activism literally thrives. Towering magnolia trees dwarf the buildings with their crowns of pale pink blooms that spread like a wall of vertical algae. The brownstones are wedged up against each other like layers of a cake in a neighborhood that is in the heart of the relentless city. Yet one tree cradling delicate pink flutes on the ends of its outstretched arms stops you in your tracks. For a moment, the urban space secedes to nature. This, I suspect, is no accident, but is another one of Laura Dwight’s sneaky moves, like a mom who hides her kid’s broccoli underneath the mashed potatoes. We’re guests of this planet (wearing out our welcome by the nano-second); it’s on us to be responsible stewards of the spaces we’re allowed to lease from the earth. The Back Bay was once a literal bay, a massive waterway part of the Charles River and surrounding Boston harbor. It was eventually dammed and filled in to create the magnificent neighborhood that Laura and others held dear.

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The trees are now thick with blooms that spill over onto sidewalks. Even though there are fewer than fifteen or so trees lining the blocks, when the blossoms peak it can feel as if you’re walking through a long, petal-strewn tunnel. It’s a corridor shuttling you between the past and the present with each tree a living monument to an ordinary woman with a simple desire to return nature to the city and in the process became Boston’s unassuming magnolia queen.

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