The Empress of Gowanus


Our Correspondents

Two trees grow in Brooklyn.

Empress tree.

Empress tree.

Lately I’ve come to love the empress trees that stand at either end of the Union Street Bridge, which crosses the Gowanus Canal, in Brooklyn. The pair aren’t much in winter, but come spring their canopies grow heavy with grand cascades of lavender flowers. The display is especially remarkable because the canal that flows beside the trees is polluted by heavy metals, pathogens, polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and other suspiciously unpronounceable toxins. Whatever perfume might drift from the purple blossoms is instantly overpowered by the rot that wafts from the canal’s murky, iridescent waters. 

The dilapidated apartment building in which I live is just a few streets north of the empress trees. I spend most of my free time there, but like a restless house cat I have my regular patrols. Sunday mornings, I take Smith Street up to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, where, from the tall wrought-iron fence that overlooks the East River, I can take in my entire city-bound life. (There is the skyscraper where I work, here is my favorite bar, that is where my best friend lives.) Other times I walk to Brooklyn Bridge Park and around Pier 6, circling a rotating neon sign that reads UNDERSTANDING, which narrowly avoids seeming self-serious because it is twenty-five feet tall and therefore impossible to read from up close.

Once walking became my primary form of exercise, I started thinking about the time spent on these excursions in isolation from the rest of my life, as though they were one long looping GIF. I began to measure my walking life not in hours spent on the pavement but in, say, the number of shuttered storefronts along Atlantic Avenue or by the absence of a huge, leafy fig tree that had been leveled to a stump when I went to look for it last autumn. Living in New York means learning not to mourn your landmarks too much. You accept shifting as part of the landscape.

Some changes are predictable, though: the exchange of evening light for the yellow fluorescence of streetlamps in the fall or the way, in winter, the pavement crunches with rock salt that stains the hems of your pants white. Spring in South Brooklyn offers a bounty of thrilling flora. Crape myrtles and weeping cherry trees seem to line every street, and just a block from the Union Street Bridge, a series of tall mimosa trees produce hot-pink and orange pom-poms every June. But there’s something far wilder and more elegant in the way the flowers of the empress trees spill into the canal, a drape of lush violet that covers the industrial olives and browns.

Recently I learned that the Gowanus empress trees found their way to Brooklyn from China in the 1800s, when the canal was still a viable shipping port. Their large, hollow nuts were used as insulation for porcelain and other fragile goods. The species, Paulownia tomentosa, is able to thrive in all manner of harsh and polluted environments, which accounts for its ongoing residency in the sludge of Brooklyn’s favorite Superfund site. In China, the tree is associated with fantastic traditions: it was traditionally planted on the day a daughter was born and chopped down when she was married; the lumber became part of the young woman’s dowry. Better still, Chinese legend suggests that the legendary phoenix would only take her rest on empress trees.

Normally I have little interest in learning about my cultural heritage—I dropped every Chinese history course I ever registered for in college—but learning about the origin of the empress trees was surprisingly moving. Admiring Paulownia before I knew anything about its origins somehow made the connection feel more authentic than investigating my ethnic background through a syllabus. I suppose that I also appreciate the unlikeliness of two far-flung transplants finding each other in this tiny, uninhabitable corner of Brooklyn. In a place where it mostly seems impossible to make a life, I too am more or less thriving.

I stopped walking over the Union Street Bridge for a period of time earlier this year because I was afraid I’d run into a recent ex. But as the weather turned, I began to feel much better. I decided to return to the industrial avenues of Gowanus in part to reclaim what I’d come to feel was my territory, but also because I missed it.

When I arrived at the the canal, I was disappointed to see that there were only a few withered purple flowers left on the empress trees. I paused next to the rusted green railing of the bridge as my mind drifted toward other regrets. Eventually, though, I began to study the empress tree in a way I hadn’t before: the elegant, jagged architecture of its limbs, the enormous velvety leaves. I pressed on.

Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and a columnist for the Daily.