From her bedroom window, Regina Derrico watched the elms crash to earth. One by one they dropped: first base, second base, third base, home. She and her friends had used the trees during afternoon baseball games and had held tea parties in their shade. As the little girl listened to the menacing hum of power saws, she could only imagine that a plague of locusts must sound like this.
Beetles, not locusts, felled the 20 American elms on Ms. Derrico's six-house block of McKinley Parkway. Between 1951 and 1981, these insects -- each the size of a grain of rice -- destroyed more than 90,000 of the species in the city -- and along with them, Buffalo's richly deserved reputation as "The City of Trees."
"When they were finished with our block, there was nothing was left," Ms. Derrico sighed. "Everything was so barren. I just remember the piercing sun. Things seemed so hot after that."
Often called this century's greatest ecological disaster, Dutch elm disease spread slowly and insidiously across Western New York, the country and the continent. It began in 1930, after a log shipped from England was unloaded in Cleveland, and the European bark beetles nesting inside took flight, spreading the Dutch elm fungus they had picked up from sickly trees to the healthy ones.
In 1951, Buffalo's first case was reported on Riverview Place. Two years later, the number had escalated to 103. By 1966, some 6,000 trees had been infected.
City forestry workers quickly became expert in identifying sickly trees, scouring streets in search of yellowed leaves and streaked bark. Afflicted trees first were measured and marked with a bright splash of paint about seven feet above their base, allowing city crews to see it above parked cars or snowdrifts. After they were cut down, trees were buried in landfills outside city limits.
"When I watched some of these trees come down, I had tears in my eyes," said Raymond Smith, retired manager of the Davey Tree Expert Co., one of the nurseries the city's forestry division hired to help removal efforts.
Smith remembered watching the vase-shaped elms that had arced majestically over avenues and boulevards clumsily thundering to the ground. Branch by branch, the city's beloved deciduous cathedral was razed.
"As far as beauty went, nothing could replace those trees," Smith said. "If you ever flew over Buffalo during the '50s and '60s, it was like a city within a forest. You couldn't see the buildings because it was like a cloud of green."
Homeowners were known to beseech forestry workers to spare trees on their property for another year -- or even another month. When a crew drove to an Arlington Park address to cut down one of the marked trees, they were met by television news crews and an angry University at Buffalo professor demanding proof that the tree was diseased.
"We went from being doctors to undertakers," said Edwin Drabek, city forester between 1968 and 1992. "People would walk around the city and wonder, 'What's happening to Buffalo?' "
Not everyone mourned the loss of the elms. Annoyed by roots pushing out sidewalks and curbs, tired of sweeping up the bushels of round seeds the trees shed, or merely averse to raking leaves, some went so far as to mark healthy trees with paint, trying to trick workers into cutting them down.
"A lot of people were glad to get rid of them," Drabek said. "In 1961 we sent postcards to residents to ask if they wanted a tree planted on their street. Between 5 and 10 percent said they didn't want one."
Trees were a key component of Frederick Law Olmsted's master plan, but by the 1960s, the days of the elms' dominion over the city were coming to an end. Dutch elm disease made sure of that. It had altered Buffalo's landscape forever, not only because of the void it left, but for the way it forced the city to regrow. Rather than focusing on a few kinds of trees, city foresters began planting more than 50 species, including the Christine Buisman elm, which is not nearly as lovely as the American elm but resistant to Dutch elm disease. Variety ensured protection from blight. If another ecological disaster on the order of Dutch elm disease were to strike, it would not decimate the city.
And yet Buffalo never fully recovered from the disaster. At various points throughout the past half-century, reforestation efforts have been axed from the budget. Today there are about 150,000 trees citywide, compared to the 200,000 Buffalo had in the first half of the century. Some 3,000 elms still stand, but only 300 of them are the American elm.
As the millennium turns, though, an increased commitment to the greening of Buffalo is taking root among individuals and groups. A project by the environmentalist Buffalo Green Fund and the city calls for an additional 150,000 trees to be planted over the next two decades.
"Olmsted saw trees as one way to relieve the stress of a civilization that was moving faster and faster," noted Buffalo lawyer David Colligan, a longtime tree advocate who volunteered to lead the project.
"His way to calm the nerves was to make sure there were plenty of trees. That's the vision we're working with, and it's fantastic."
Colligan finds it ironic that Buffalo's hostile climate -- so often the butt of national jokes -- is ideal for growing such a wide variety of trees. He's hopeful that Buffalo will once again come to be known as a city of trees -- not just one of snowstorms.
"Trees aren't the only answer for the city's problems," he added. "But they're something."