There are various approaches to Keene’s downtown, but for our money the one from Main Street heading north from Routes 12/101 toward Central Square can’t be beat. Beginning with the residential neighborhood of historic homes and the stately campus entrance to Keene State College, the long view up Main Street toward Central Square with the United Church of Christ spire predominating above has captivated residents and visitors alike and helps explain why Keene’s downtown is the envy of many another small city.
Integral to the view that approach affords are the many trees that at first border and shade the Main Street approach, then sweep up the median through the heart of commercial downtown toward their eventual spreading out to fill and surround the circle we know as Central Square.
This year, as spring progressed toward summer, and the many trees leafed out and their canopies spread, that approach took on additional meaning: not only inspiring the annual enjoyment of their natural beauty once again, but now also coinciding with the reawakening of the downtown from the prolonged hibernation brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown.
Once again — ideally while observing social distancing and other necessary precautions — those who seek a bite to eat or a cup of coffee, to make a purchase from a local retailer or just to stroll downtown to take in the sights, revisit the Walldogs murals or, this week, enjoy the annual Art Walk store-window displays, are starting to reappear downtown in increasing numbers.
Jarring it was, then, when the sweeping view of that approach to downtown was disrupted by the removal last week of 17 of the ash trees on Main Street due to an infestation by the emerald ash borer. The 17 had occupied the median from, ironically, Emerald Street to Gilbo Avenue. Now, only their stumps remain, leaving a barren stretch that, for now, makes that portion of Main Street look like a landscape architect’s oversight and detracts from downtown’s charm.
It recalls the deflation Elm City residents once felt when the city’s namesake elm trees had to be removed by the hundreds over several decades. The majestic old elms lined Main and other downtown streets, until falling victim to Dutch elm disease, borne by bark beetles. The ash trees planted along the median were a replacement for the elms.
Sadly, those 17 may not be the only victims. The ash borer has been spreading insidiously, and the 22 remaining ash trees on Main Street are at risk. Keene public works officials have plans to monitor and treat them, and we’ll all cross fingers they’ll survive. The odds appear long, though, and forestry specialist Steven S. Roberge with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension observed, “If you have an ash tree, chances are it will be infested at some point; it’s just a matter of when.”
Depressing as what the loss of the ash trees may portend for the beauty of downtown’s vista, they are relative newcomers in Main Street’s long history, having arrived only within the last 40 years, after the median was installed in the commercial area. And the city says it will be replacing the ones removed last week with other trees that aren’t susceptible to the ash borer.
So for now, while saddened at the loss of the 17 ash trees and their part in Main Street’s beauty, yet staying hopeful about the remaining 22, let us look forward to the downtown tree replanting to come. The full sweep of the inspiring view up Main Street will return. And perhaps as the replacements for the 17 now gone grow to renew that view, they will also serve as a reminder that their arrival coincided with a new beginning for downtown.