The magnolia tree growing in Brooklyn doesn’t often bloom, but for nearly 150 years, it has survived. 

The tree — and a smaller, younger sibling planted alongside it — stands sentry in front of three Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstones once scheduled for demolition. For the past 50 years, the buildings have housed the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, a local nonprofit that promotes environmental education and serves as a meeting hub for other neighborhood groups. 

Magnolia trees, known for their great white blossoms and ubiquitous across the South, don’t often survive Northern climates — let alone decades beyond the typical lifespan of the species. 

Now, as the center announces a fundraising campaign to complete long overdue repairs, its leaders see the tree as a symbol of their resilience. 

“It’s thriving under adverse conditions, under good times and under bad times,” Wayne Devonish, the center’s board chairman, said in an interview. “It’s doing what a lot of people have done — they came here and made the most out of it.”

The center has a storied history as a locus of Black environmental awareness in Brooklyn — albeit one that its supporters say is unfairly overlooked in the context of the city’s broader urban nature movement. 

It began with Hattie Carthan, a Black transplant from Virginia who moved to Bed-Stuy in the middle of the past century and quickly began organizing her neighbors into a tree-planting brigade. Though she was a retired grandmother, she used her charm and no small amount of cajoling to encourage residents to find room for seedlings, planters and watering cans in their budgets.

“Hattie Carthan was one of the first environmental activists to come out of Brooklyn, before that was even a term,” said Councilman Chi Ossé, who represents the area and is lending his support to the center’s fundraising push. “She really understood the importance of preserving trees, life and the ecosystems that exist in a concrete jungle.”


Wayne Devonish, the chair of the center's board, stands in front of a photograph of Hattie Carthan that hangs on a wall inside the center. (NY1/Ari Ephraim Feldman)


Her efforts led to the creation of block associations and a beautification society that together planted — and tended to the care of — 1,500 ginkgo, sycamore, Dutch elm and honey locust trees across the neighborhood. She became known in the press as Brooklyn’s “tree lady.”

In the 1970s, in her 70s, she launched the Magnolia Tree Earth Center to protect the eponymous tree, planted in the 19th century by a former resident.  Using local donations, she bought the center’s brownstone buildings, which sit across the street from Bed-Stuy’s beloved Herbert Von King Park, after the city agreed to sell them for $1,200, and secured landmark status for them. The urban farm on the other side of Marcy Avenue from the park, as well as a nearby community garden, are both named in her honor.

Since then, the center has offered regular classes on gardening and urban forestry, and served as a home for several other nonprofits whose rents provided the backbone of their budget. 

In recent years, however, its buildings have suffered without sufficient money for regular repairs. In early 2020, the organization had secured funding enough to begin overhauling the facades. Then the pandemic nearly emptied it of renters, and Devonish says that their contractor at the time failed to secure the proper city permits, leading to cascading fines. 

According to Andrew Rudansky, a spokesperson for the city’s buildings department, the center has received more than $450,000 in fines in recent years, stemming from default court judgments after multiple violations were not contested. 

“Property owners in New York City have an important legal responsibility to keep their buildings in a safe, compliant condition,” Rudansky said in an emailed statement. “We have been providing guidance to the owners as they work to resolve the open violations at the property and make the necessary repairs.” 

Bertha Lewis, the executive director of the nonprofit policy group the Black Institute, contrasted the Magnolia Tree Earth Center with the city’s better known nature groups and park conservancies, saying that the center should be as well-funded and influential. 

“Not to recognize Hattie Carthan as one of the pioneers, and one of the trailblazers in the environmental movement, is environmental racism,” Lewis said. 

Devonish said the organization’s first priority is to finish the needed repairs — and shed the scaffolding that currently block a full view of the magnolia trees. After that, he said, they hope to negotiate with the buildings department on their fines. (Rudansky said that if the violations that led to the fines are fixed, the organization can reduce the penalties they owe by half.)

If the fundraising effort is successful in securing at least $350,000, he added, it could help put the center back in contention for larger grants from the city’s culture department, as well as discretionary funding from the City Council, in time for the celebration of their 50th anniversary in November.  

“We really have a decent shot of getting some influx of capital, and we have electeds saying the wheels of the government will eventually get to you,” Devonish said. 

With about 12,000 square feet of office space available to rent, Devonish said he hopes that closing the book on the expensive repairs could allow the center to expand its environmental work and continue to exist for another half-century. 

“We want to be that hub that folks come to when they want to learn about planting trees, creating a garden,” he said. “We want to be that little, warm, fuzzy group where folks can get rental space cheaply, and it’s decent looking.”

The legacy of Hattie Carthan, he said, is always at the top of his mind. Now all they need is for neighborhood residents and city leaders to help preserve that legacy through their campaign.

“We’re hoping it catches fire,” Devonish said.