Trying to beautify 'ugly' downtown, one tree at a time

Marblehead resident David Hooks, posing with his dog and one of his signs, is behind a push to plant trees downtown. A warrant article he championed at May Annual Town Meeting is headed for a vote next week, and would provide $50,000 for the project.

MARBLEHEAD — Retired yacht broker David Hooks looks at the forest of telephone poles and thickets of utility wires cluttering downtown Marblehead and sees little to love.

Getting rid of the poles and burying the lines would be too expensive, however, so the 73-year-old resident is proposing the next best thing: planting trees downtown to spruce things up a bit.

He wants voters heading to the polls for the Tuesday, June 18, Special Election to approve a one-time, Proposition 2½ debt exclusion of $50,000 to plant trees downtown. 

And he’s apparently found some support. Signs backing what will be Question 3 on the ballot have sprouted around town, reading “M’Head for the Trees” and “Affordable beautification of our downtown.” 

Last month, Hooks was able to convince Town Meeting to support his citizen’s petition and put it to a town-wide vote, despite the Finance Committee’s recommendation to postpone the idea indefinitely. 

“If you look at any street that’s got trees, even in the fall when the leaves are off the trees, to some degree they hide the telephone poles,” said Hooks.

“The telephone pole in front of Irresistibles (clothing store) has got a huge pole, and then it’s got like 10 feet of the old pole that’s bolted to the new pole with four-by-fours, and there are three transformers up there and there’s a big chunk of wood,” Hooks said. Wires are everywhere. 

“I just looked at it and I said, ‘It’s disgustingly ugly.’”

His goal is to have trees planted from Green’s Ace Hardware on Atlantic Avenue down to the Five Corners intersection, and then on Pleasant Street from Starbucks to the Three Cod Tavern.

Man on a mission

Hooks, who grew up in Salem and moved to town in his 20s, recalls that when he was a kid in the 1950s, there used to be towering elms lining Lafayette Street. That was before the spread of Dutch elm disease.

Hooks has made efforts to plant elm trees around town. He bought and paid for the planting of an elm tree on the grassy sidewalk outside his home. And when his wife died six years ago, he had an elm tree planted in her memory at the Coffin School, where she used to teach. 

More than 10 years ago, he donated a dozen small elm trees to the town. But that was at a time when the tree department was much bigger and operated a nursery, so that the donated trees could grow bigger before being planted around town.

Hooks said sections of sidewalk downtown will have to be taken up to plant the trees. He measured the sidewalks’ width and found they are 6 feet wide, including the width of the granite curbing. You need at least a 3-foot clearance for a wheelchair.

“It’s doable,” Hooks said.

Given new drain pipes and gas lines that were installed on the Ace Hardware side of the street, it’s likely the trees would be planted on the opposite side. Some of the stores have awnings, so the trees would have to be taller and narrower.

“We are not going to put 60- or 80-foot trees down there,” he said. 

Adding it up

Hooks said much of the feedback he has gotten has been positive. His signs say the cost of the plantings would be $10 per household, which he bases on the rough calculation of the town having 5,000 households, and the cost of the trees being $50,000.

However, the U.S. Census Bureau counts 8,250 households in town, and the actual number will depend on how much a home is valued and the town’s tax rate. Finance Director Alison Nieto said her rough calculation is $5 for the median single-family home valued at $630,000, and $6.50 per the average single-family home valued at $820,000.

Hooks says what this boils down to is it is not a lot of money per household.

“You can’t buy a movie theater ticket at the Warwick for $10. If you go to Five Corners, you might get a glass of wine for 10 bucks. If you are a Dunkin’ Donuts person, you might get three cups of coffee. ... You know what I’m saying. It’s an insignificant amount of money, and I’m not asking for it every year, I’m asking for it once.”

To come up with his warrant article, Hooks reached out to longtime Selectman Harry Christensen, who helped draft write it. 

“I do favor it,” said Christensen. “Marblehead has traditionally been a beautiful, beautiful town, and I think the trees in the downtown would be a wonderful addition.” Christensen recalled the days of the former tree warden, Loring Clark, who was responsible for planting many of the trees around town.

“He was the Johnny Appleseed of Marblehead,” Christensen said. But those days are gone and the town does not have the same resources it used to have to take care of trees.

“This is certainly not a major step,” Christensen said, “but certainly a step in the right direction.”

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.