Hoboken isn’t exactly a town known for its trees. In a town of 40,000 people crammed into one square mile of century-old tenement buildings directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan, there isn’t much room for them. Yet the town planted 40 trees in its Pier A Park as a living memorial to those who died on 9/11.
These trees aren’t ordinary oaks or maples or London plane trees that already occupy Pier A. These trees are special—they’re Ginkgo bilobas.
“I thought the ginkgo was a special choice,” Lisa Frigand, resident and commission member for the Hoboken September 11th Memorial Fund, said. “It’s fabulous.”
The ginkgo is impressive. The tree has fan-shaped leaves that turn bright yellow in autumn, can soar 100 to 200 feet in height, with a trunk diameter of three to four feet, and has a possible life span of 1,000 years.
Proclaimed “a living fossil” by botanist Charles Darwin, the ginkgo has survived some 250 million years. “It actually was a tree that lived during the time of the dinosaurs,” said Steve Lederach, landscape architect and Hoboken living memorial codesigner.
But one historical fact about the ginkgo stands out as miraculous: A ginkgo was one of the few things left standing—and alive—following the 1945 nuclear blast in Hiroshima. It would bud without any deformities the following spring. The Japanese regard the tree as the “bearer of hope.” Still standing outside a temple, inscribed into its trunk are the words “no more Hiroshima” and prayers for peace.
Hoboken residents crave hope and peace as many still struggle with the memory and aftermath of 9/11. “Every time we look out our windows toward New York, I feel it,” said Rick Evans, resident and commission member. “Both towers are missing—there’s a loss of them. The loss of the towers don’t compare to the loss of the families.”
The relationship between Hoboken and New York City is a close one. Less than a mile of the Hudson River separates the two. PATH trains and the Hudson and Lincoln tunnels run underground as life-exchanging arteries, transporting thousands of commuters, many of them Hoboken residents, daily into the city.
It was at Hoboken’s Pier A Park on September 11, 2001, that the town witnessed the attack on the World Trade Center, watched the collapse of the towers and deaths of nearly 3,000 people and helped rescue boats unload more than 10,000 attack victims ferried across from New York for medical treatment.
Fifty-three of those who died on 9/11 were Hoboken residents—more than any other town in New Jersey.
The ginkgoes—planted in their memory—are arranged in a grid aligned with the former site of the World Trade Center. The irony is that neither the living memorial nor the ginkgoes were consciously planned.
“It just fell into my lap,” Frigand said. Shortly after September 11, 2001, Mayor David Roberts rounded up Frigand, Evans and 13 other residents into a commission to develop a design competition for a permanent 9/11 memorial to be located at Pier A Park. In May 2002, Frigand, who also serves on a committee for the 9/11 Memorial in New York, received an email from a colleague informing her of a grant for living memorials sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service.
The USDA Forest Service established the Living Memorials Project for communities located within the New York, Washington and southwestern Pennsylvania areas to foster healing by using “the resonating power of trees.” According to their website, “after 9/11, the recover, re-build and memorial process, in many ways, follows the analogy of forest after a burn. There was an explosion of life in the form of good will, volunteerism and human spirit.”
Frigand said she approached the Hoboken memorial commission who “agreed that it would be a wonderful addition to the permanent memorial we were planning anyhow.” The commission wrote and submitted the proposal in two weeks. The Forest Service awarded Hoboken $75,000. Other living memorial projects in New Jersey are located in Edison, Manalapan, Marlboro, Stirling, Princeton, Liberty State Park in Jersey City and Essex County’s Eagle Rock Reservation.
Grant conditions barred Hoboken from bidding for a designer. Instead the town contacted the Arnold Association of Princeton, the landscape architectural firm that designed Pier A Park. “[The commission] had the money very quickly and it had to go out very fast,” Lederach said. Time constraints, he explained, greatly affected tree selection. First, they had to pick a species that could survive the harsh winter weather conditions along the Hudson River. Second, the tree had to be available.
“Right now nurseries are tapped out of any tree because of the building boom for the past five years in New Jersey,” Lederach said. “With trees you need five, ten years. It’s not like you make them and they’re available that year.” The designers also wanted a tree to stand apart from the London plane trees already planted there. “That’s why we selected the ginkgo. It has a beautiful, stately form and lives many years.”
Lederach stressed that even though he knew the story behind the ginkgo, the tree wasn’t picked for its symbolism. “No, the real symbolism was the orientation of the grove toward the Trade Center itself,” he said. “That’s the symbolism—try to create a place of seclusion where people could sit, meditate and think.” But he conceded, “In many ways, perhaps subconsciously when we were designing it, that may have been what we were leaning toward.”
Henry Arnold, chief partner of the Arnold Association, presented designs for the living memorial to a Hoboken support group for the victims’ families of 9/11. Tracy Orr, who lost her 32-year-old husband, Alexander Steinman, recalled that Arnold didn’t explain the ginkgo’s history, heritage or symbolism. “I know he said they did turn a brilliant yellow color around September, so that was appealing to everybody—without a doubt,” she said. “Our entire group is very happy about the living memorial. It’s a place where we could go and reflect.”
She continued: “When he [Arnold] said, ‘ginkgo,’ my antennae went up because my mother had offered to give me a pair of gold leaf earrings she had that were in the shape of ginkgo leaves after all this happened,” Orr said. “She explained to me the symbolism of the ginkgo leaves that are hope and good luck for the future.”
Told about the Hiroshima story, Orr said: “I think that’s absolutely amazing and touching and very symbolic. It makes the living memorial, and the whole concept of the words living memorial even more poignant.”
Donna Zukowski is a journalism and media studies student at Rutgers-Newark.