Only in Mobile could one of the most polarizing political figures in recent history come to town and the two biggest controversies to come out of that visit be those involving an old tree and the young maidens who honor the trail of a flowering bush.
It all started when Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s chief of staff, Colby Cooper, received a request from President-elect Donald Trump’s advance team to have Christmas decorations at his “thank you” tour event last Saturday.
Cooper said he asked city crews to begin looking in our city parks for a Christmas tree, and they found the perfect one — a 50-foot cedar in Public Safety Memorial Park. The tree was chopped down after verbal approval from the urban forester and taken to Ladd-Peebles Stadium, where it was decorated and hoisted up behind the stage to cover the scoreboard.
At some of the other stops on Trump’s tour, the stages behind the podiums were decorated with collections of regular-sized Christmas trees. I guess those were just not “yuuuge” or “tremendous” enough for the president-elect in Cooper’s estimation.
Cooper has since apologized and said he “became overzealous” in his efforts to “make sure every detail was covered.”
The mayor was less than thrilled with his chief of staff, releasing a statement on Monday afternoon reading, “I have spoken with the Chief of Staff regarding Saturday’s visit to the city of Mobile by the President-elect. He made a mistake by directing our employees to cut down a tree from a city park and install it at Ladd-Peebles Stadium for the event. I have accepted his apology for that mistake. At my direction, the tree will be repurposed and our city staff has a plan in place to replant three cedar trees in Public Safety Memorial Park.
“Moving forward, we will ensure this mistake does not happen again. Vibrant public parks are central to my vision for making Mobile the most family-friendly city in America, and we are committed to safeguarding our signature trees.”
This makes the third “tree-gate” we’ve had under the Stimpson administration in the last two years. And definitely the worst.
The first trees, five oaks across from Bienville Square, were removed in the name of development so the new Hilton Garden Inn could be constructed. Though the trees were on private property, the city took some heat for not making sure the developer had all of the proper tree permits in place before they were removed. The developer was ultimately fined $298 for not having the proper permit for one of the trees.
About a year later, 17 oaks were removed from in front of the history museum and Exploreum. The city said those offending trees were causing hazardous conditions and undermining sidewalks and the museum’s foundation.
But at least the trees in both of those instances were removed with (arguably) reasonable explanations. But just to take down one from a city park to use for a few hours? Geez!
I am sure some of the local tree lots would have gladly donated some nice firs for the event. Or if those weren’t big enough, a simple Facebook post asking Trump supporters to donate a Rockefeller Center-sized one off their land would have garnered more than one offer.
While I get that hindsight is 20/20, it’s hard to understand why thinking it was OK to raid our city parks for a decoration for this or any other event was ever even a consideration. What’s next? Raiding our downtown flowerbeds so we’ll have nice table centerpieces at the State of the City luncheon?
Anyway, I think the “root” of this problem here was clearly tree-scrimination. Everyone worries about our gorgeous oaks around here, so I bet these city officials thought no one would notice if some knobby old cedar tree went missing.
I guess Cooper and the gang forgot Mobilians are practically Druids. While we do love our oaks the most, we’re pretty fond of all the other ones as well. (Except I do hear there are some fringe groups who hate popcorn trees.)
Either way, how these guys didn’t anticipate the con-tree-versy this would cause is baffling to me.
Dear city officials: Remember this really bad poem next time you are thinking about dusting off the old chainsaw. I promise it will keep you out of trouble.
Be it oaks or magnolias, ginkgoes or cedars,
We are going to rage if you butcher any of them, oh city leaders.
We love our trees so I often wonder if we should ditch “Port City” or “Azalea City” in favor of “the City of a Thousand Oaks” or something a-corny like that.
But our port is important and our azaleas are certainly emblematic of this gorgeous city as well, which brings me to the next “controversy” coming out of the president-elect’s visit.
As Trump exited his plane at Brookley Field, he was greeted by a small group of lovely Azalea Trail Maids.
A reporter from the Associated Press took a photo with the caption “the president-elect’s welcoming committee in Mobile.”
Quickly, the trolliest of the internet’s trolls took to calling them “disgusting” and “embarrassing” and “racist,” asking if this was “Django Unchained?”
It was “disgusting” indeed to see high school seniors from all of our area schools (from a variety of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds) subjected to such cyber-cruelty.
If there is one thing that is not in dispute, it is that all of these girls are the best of the best. They excelled in school and learned about the history of their city so they could be proud ambassadors for it. They didn’t deserve that kind of ridicule.
I have always been told that their frilly, pastel dresses — which have not been without controversy over the years — were more of a tribute to the azalea itself rather than some stereotypical pre-Civil War Southern belle costume.
As Mobilians, we get what these dresses mean and know who these girls are and the history of this program. And we are proud of it and of them. And we just want to tell these trolls to buzz off.
But with that said, I get the “perception versus reality” argument, too.
I was discussing this with a former Trail Maid about her thoughts on this, and while she is certainly still proud of her association with this program, she did express concern about what this looks like from the outsider’s perspective, and if it does indeed hurt our image as a progressive city. Because, right or wrong — some people from other parts of the country do not look at these dresses as being representative of a flower trail but a throwback to a time that shouldn’t be celebrated.
And this is something the Jaycees should certainly think about going forward, as I suspect it is a topic that will come up again and again in the future, as the world and the internet are not going to become nicer or more understanding anytime soon.
And since it is such an excellent program, it would be a shame if our brightest and best were discouraged from participating in it because of this kind of ugliness.