South Phoenix residents seek preservation of historic palm trees displaced by light rail

By: - October 14, 2021 9:05 am

About 35 palm trees were preserved and replanted to the backyard of Victor Vidales where he fronts the costs of maintaining and watering the trees. The trees for decades have added to the cultural character of south Phoenix, but were removed as part of the Valley Metro and City of Phoenix project to extend the light rail to the city’s south side. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

On a late summer afternoon, Victor Vidales walked along the one-acre lot of his backyard that is temporarily housing more than two dozen palm trees. Dried weeds and rocky soil crunched under his flip flops. 

“If these trees could talk, what would they say?” Vidales said, as the tall and thin palm trees towered over him.

Vidales, a South Phoenix resident who can proudly trace back his roots to the neighborhood for generations, is temporary steward of these palm trees, some with healthy green fronds, others bare at top.

“They saw all the killings, all the murders, but they also saw all the quinceañeras, all the weddings,” Vidales said, imagining the stories the trees would tell. 

The palm trees housed at Vidales’ property were once a landmark of south Central Avenue. The trees were planted along the median and, residents say, had been there for about 60 years. The future of the iconic trees was endangered when plans for a $1.3 billion South Central/Downtown Hub project that will bring the light rail to south Phoenix were drawn up. To make way for the light rail tracks and system, the median and the trees would be gone. 

Vidales said neighbors of the South Central Collaborative advocated for Valley Metro and the City of Phoenix to preserve the trees. 

“It’s a lot easier to throw them in a landfill. They just wanted to destroy them, said they wouldn’t survive,” he said. But besides the historical and iconic elements, Vidales, a real estate agent, knew the trees had actual value. The first home he bought through a veteran’s loan two decades ago had some mature trees that he was able to sell. That taught him that south Phoenix’s palm trees were a community asset.

The group of neighbors succeeded in advocating for the preservation of the row of trees, after considering the difficult logistics and costs of uprooting mature trees, transporting them using cranes and trucks, and finding a temporary location where they could replant them.  

According to Valley Metro, the construction contractor for the project, Kiewit, donated the labor and cost to relocate all 35 trees. Some trees cracked and broke during the relocation process. Others, Vidales said, won’t survive windy monsoon seasons and the shock of being uprooted and replanted several times in a few years. 

Kiewit, the construction contractor for the South Central extension of the light rail system donated the labor and cost to relocate all 35 palm trees. Photo courtesy of Valley Metro

The cost that Kiewit fronted was $37,000, said Sam Gomez, a community leader and arts advocate in south Phoenix. To relocate them to their permanent location will take another $37,000, he said. 

Gomez said that to him, the trees have important symbolism. He called them the “spinal cord” of the neighborhood.

“The palm trees represent that grounding and that balance, the negative stereotypes and the beauty that was happening,” he said. 

There are two other landmarks that are important to Gomez: the Rio Salado, which is the geographical boundary of the neighborhood, represents a womb, a beginning. South Mountain, with its antennas that blink every night, represents enlightenment, “that healing, that vision.” 

The symbolism of the longtime south Phoenix residents — in this case, the palm trees — being at risk because of the light rail construction project is not lost on Gomez. 

“You start seeing how displacement happens. It’s almost like cultural genocide,” he said.

The group of neighbors is still deciding where the palm trees will be located permanently, but the hope for now is that they be at every stop of the new light rail system. 

In the meantime, Vidales is paying for the watering and maintenance costs of housing the trees. In caring for them, he has found some trash on the pockets that form on the trunks. He’s found names and carvings on them too. 

He imagines people throughout decades finding a strip of shade cast by the thin trunk and broad fronds. He wore a shirt with a graphic of the palm trees against a sunrise and the words, “Preserving our history.” 

“Despite what experts say, some things will still thrive and survive,” Vidales said. “They are really resilient, all those years of heat, droughts. It’s just like the people. We survived the summers, violence, bad planning, forced annexation. We are very resilient people.”

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