The Untold Story of the Woman Who Launched the Urban Environmental Movement


Hattie Carthan is the mother of the urban environmental movement in America that she single-handedly kicked off when she got fed up with watching her Brooklyn neighborhood deteriorate. Her mantra was: Save a Tree, Save a Neighborhood, and she pursued it relentlessly — leading a grassroots movement well into her 70s. Marlon Rice, Executive Director of the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, the non-profit dedicated to environmental education that Hattie started, talks to us about her work and legacy.





Episode 5: Hattie Carthan

Our interview with Marlon Rice, Executive Director of the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, founded by Hattie Carthan.

Nancy: Welcome, Marlon Rice. He’s the Executive Director of the Magnolia Tree Earth Center. Marlon, can you tell us what the Magnolia Tree Earth Center is? Which is such a great name.

Marlon: Absolutely. The Magnolia Tree Earth Center was founded in 1972 as a hub of environmental education to the underserved communities of central Brooklyn. If we go back in time, the ’70s in New York City were probably the low point for the city as a whole, borough to borough. Brooklyn was no different. Bedford-Stuyvesant was an underserved community. And Hattie Carthan came with the idea that if you create a connection between children and the earth, then you create a more responsible person, a more responsible adult. And with that vision, she opened Magnolia Tree Earth Center as a way to be a catalyst of changing the relationship that children have with the environment.

Nancy: That is so visionary. People have to understand that that kind of eco thinking … That if you took care of nature, you would take care of the environment. Not just the green environment, but your family environment, your community environment. And that was one of the things that Hattie brought to not just Bedford-Stuyvesant but to the whole urban green movement of which she was a pioneer. So let’s go back to the beginning, she begins with her block. As most people do, you start small. And she put out a call to her neighbors like, “Could we all chip in so we can plant some trees?”

Marlon: Right. Well, even before the trees … So the story begins with…Hattie grew up in Portsmouth, Virginia, which happens to be the same town that my grandmother is from, that my family’s from.

Nancy: Oh, that’s neat.

Marlon: So she came to New York and she lived in Long Island. She married twice. She divorced twice. And in 1958, she moved from Long Island to Vernon Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant. So the socio economic landscape of Brooklyn at the time was that post-World War II, the president put out what was called the G.I. Bill, which afforded veterans the opportunity to buy homes with a guaranteed loan. So spurred by the G.I. Bill, what you had was a lot of working class white families that lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant and in central Brooklyn, moved out of Brooklyn and into what was known as the suburbs, Queens, Long Island. This was the trend in the ’50s. To move away from the city, to move into a more green environment, to have country living in the city, as it was called.

And so a bunch of people left Brooklyn at the same time that Hattie moved back to Brooklyn. So Hattie Carthan in 1958, she was 58-years-old. She had two divorces. She had two children. And for many middle aged women, the story could have easily stopped there. At 58, with children, divorcee. We see that story play out in our communities all the time. She moves to Vernon Avenue and what she realizes quickly within a span of two years is that the attention to environment that she was used to in Long Island, the grass, the trees, the water didn’t exist in Brooklyn. She had tree pits where just years ago there were healthy trees. No one was taking care of the trees. And so the tree pits became a place for bottles and a place for garbage.

She watched her community deteriorate very quickly. It was like almost a perfect storm. Because she moved to Brooklyn right at a time where the pressure began to hit communities because people were moving out into the suburbs. She gets together with her block. She actually creates a block association called the Vernon T and T Block Association. The nature of the block association is to keep her block clean. And so what she does, at the time, revolutionary act number one, is she creates a block party to raise funds to clean the community. They mayor at the top. So this is in the mid ’60s. This is ’65, ’66. I believe the mayor at the time was Mayor Lindsay.

Nancy: That’s right.

Marlon: And Lindsay got word of what Hattie was doing and actually attended one of her block parties.

Nancy: I believe she wrote a letter to him. No slouch, our Hattie.

Marlon: Right. Right. See one thing about Hattie, she was a very direct person. From all the writings that I’ve read and from all the people that I know that still … they’re still around and they knew her. That’s one of the things that’s been said about her, is that she was very direct. She would look you in the eye. She would ask for what she wanted. She wasn’t afraid to speak to anybody. And so yeah, she wrote a letter to Mayor Lindsey.

Nancy: Called it a love letter.

Marlon: So this is in ’66.

Nancy: And he came.

Marlon: He came.

Nancy: He came, right? Yeah.

Marlon: He came. He was excited by the work she was doing. And the other side of that is that no one else at the time was taking on the work. You had Herbert Von King. Von King Park in Brooklyn is named after him. Von King was kind of active in this same space, but he wasn’t specifically engaged with trees and with community. So that was in ’66.

Now mind you, at the time, Hattie is still working. She works for a market research firm, downtown Brooklyn. Every day she takes the 38 downtown and when she gets off of work she gets on the 38 bus and goes up Lafayette Avenue. On Lafayette Avenue, between Marcy and Tompkins, there’s a humongous Magnolia tree. It’s a 45 foot Magnolia tree.

Anybody from the South would know immediately that something’s wrong because Magnolia trees are typically climate trees. They do not grow north of the Mason-Dixon line. Hattie, of course from Virginia, she saw the tree every day. She’s riding the bus home from work. She sees the tree in front of what looks like abandoned buildings. As she says to herself that that Magnolia tree is special, she wants to know about the tree.

One of those days, instead of taking the bus all the way home, she gets off the bus and she begins inquiring about the buildings. What she finds is that the three brownstones in which the Magnolia tree is in front of are slated for destruction. So again, going back to the socioeconomic period in Brooklyn, this was at a time where abandoned brownstones were being wiped away and big tenements were being built. Those will come housing.

Nancy: What they call improvement.

Marlon: Right. Right. And in hindsight now, we see that that was a mistake. But there was a lot of mistakes happening at this time and this was just one of them. So they were tearing down brownstones, building tenements. So they were building a giant tenement on Lafayette Avenue and they were going to use that area as a parking lot for the tenement. Hattie began doing research about the tree. All of this, now mind you, she’s in her late 60’s by now.

Nancy: And there’s no computers. There’s no Google, right?

Marlon: There’s more to that. She has to literally do the footwork to figure out about this tree. What she found out about the tree was that the tree was brought here from North Carolina in the late 1800s. And the tree preceded the brownstones. The tree was actually planted there before the brownstones were built.

And then the brownstones were built around the tree. And that in and of itself is quite significant because we believe that that’s the reason why that tree has survived in this climate; is because the way that the buildings were built behind it and the fact that they put the boiler directly under the tree. So the tree had heat during the winter. And it happened-

Nancy: It was sheltered.

Marlon: And it was sheltered by the building. So this is amazing.

Nancy: A miracle.

Marlon: Right. So she finds this out about the tree and so now she chooses the tree to be her way of connecting environment to community. Like I said, she already was upset about the tree pits on her block. She said in something that I read that it went from a tree line block to her only having three trees in her entire community, which when you think about it now is totally crazy. But growing up, because I grew up here in Bedstuy. And so I remember being a kid, being like six, seven-years-old and the trees being put back in the tree pits.

Nancy: New saplings being planted?

Marlon: Exactly.

Nancy: Okay.

Marlon: There was a meeting one time when I was young on my block. I remember my mother and father attending the meeting where the question was on both … So it was the block meeting. So what the question was, was, “DO you guys want flowerpots? Or do you want trees?” And my block chose trees. And so now, 30 years later, we have a tree line block on Green Avenue. But all of this started really from Hattie and that Magnolia. So let me speed it up because I could talk about this forever.

Nancy: No, no, it’s a wonderful story. I want to know what happens to the Magnolia.

Marlon: So in 1969, she finds out everything about the tree and the brownstones. The brownstones are trying to … they’re going to crush the brownstones and they’re going to destroy the tree and put a parking lot up. Hattie speaks to Mayor Lindsey. She speaks to Herbert Von King, which he had become a friend of hers by then. She speaks to the Botanic Garden.

She goes around to all these people. Now, it’s funny to me because in the work that I do, I sometimes imagine how that played out. So you got a 70-year-old woman come into your office, she’s not politically connected at all. And she’s like, “Listen, I need to save this tree.” And at that time, people didn’t care about the environment. People were still smoking in offices.

Nancy: Exactly right.

Marlon: People were literally still smoking cigarettes in their office. So it’s just amazing the push she was able to get in the community for this work. So she went to our community brothers, like Al Vann, brothers like …There was a gentleman that owned the McDonald’s on Kingston and Throop, on the corner of Throop and Fulton. His name is Mr. Atanore. He donated $1200 to Hattie Carthan so that she could buy the brownstones.

That $1200 represented a 10% down payment on all three brownstones. So the three brownstones were going for $12,000 in 1970, maybe in the early ’70s. Which, again, that speaks volumes about the community. You can’t an get apartment in a brownstone for $12,000 a year.

Nancy: In the current Bedstuy. Yeah, the fancy one.

Marlon: Right. Right. So she won. She purchased the brownstones, and so she was able to save the tree. But more than save the tree, what she was able to prove to the city of New York Parks and Recreation, and in turn to the Landmark Conservancy, was that this Magnolia tree was a living landmark. Because it was the only Magnolia tree at the time. It was the only Magnolia tree north of the Mason-Dixon line.

And she did that work herself to prove to Landmark’s that this needed to be a living landmark. So it became a New York City living landmark. It was one of two. There was a Weeping Willow in Queens that was also a living landmark. That tree has now died. So our tree located right on Lafayette between Marcy and Tompkins is currently the last living landmark of New York City. And that’s totally due to Hattie’s work.

Nancy: And Marlon, you’re still taking care of that Magnolia?

Marlon: Yeah.

Nancy: Which lends its name to your center?

Marlon: Yeah.

Nancy: So the center is in the-

Marlon: It’s in the brownstones.

Nancy: …brownstones that she saved?

Marlon: Right. Correct.

Nancy: And will you talk about the … because, as you said earlier, it was about the children. Teaching the children their connection to nature. And I read about this Tree Corps-

Marlon: Tree Corps, yeah.

Nancy: …she started with the kids. That they were responsible for taking care of these. How many trees did she ultimately get planted? 1500? Or something crazy number?

Marlon: So Hattie was responsible for planting over 1700 trees in Brooklyn.

Nancy: Not bad. Huh?

Marlon: The first time I read that stat, I was like, “This can’t be true. 1700 trees?” But yes, 1700 trees she’s responsible for planting here in the borough. And so it started with Tree Corps. So again, let’s go back to the tree pits were horrible. People were throwing bottles, and drugs, and stuff, everything in the tree pits. Hattie said, “This is not right. This is one of the reasons why the trees can’t survive.”

She put together a stipend for some kids between the ages of 8 and 15 and said, “Your job is to go around this community and clean the tree pits. If you see a tree pit that’s dirty, remove all the dirt. Let’s put some soil down. Let’s make healthy tree pits for these trees.” The kids loved it.

Obviously, you give a kid, some money to do some work, that’s going to entice them to do the work. So the kids began doing the work. Tree Corps became recognized by the New York City Parks and Recreations, and it became a thing. And Tree Corps actually lasted until the mid ’90s as a summer youth opportunity for kids to clean tree pits and to be able to learn more about how to care for trees.

Nancy: And I want to underline something you just said, Marlon. That these children … she arranged that these children got paid. It was a nominal amount of money. But I love that it wasn’t just, “Oh, volunteer. Be a good kid.” It was also putting money on the table for doing the work. I’m saying that because women and children often, it’s like, “Oh, you volunteer and you never get paid for anything.” And I thought it was significant that she added money into the equation.

Marlon: Right. Well, again, if you look at that time period, people were leaving New York. Like influencers, leaders in community. People were leaving New York in such a high rate that the city couldn’t find people to do the work of the community. And so community leaders here in Brooklyn realized that. And they realized that the city would give you money to do the work that the infrastructure the city can’t accomplish.

Nancy: Oh, good. I didn’t know that.

Marlon: So Hattie was plugged into that. She realized, listen, once her connection with Mayor Lindsay, it opened up a lot of avenues for her and a lot of knowledge on how to play the civic activism. And so she knew that she would get money for it. And so she did the paperwork and she got the money for it and was able to bring some of that resources into the community.

Nancy: Marlon, say again how old she was as she was writing all these proposals and going into all these offices.

Marlon: She was in her late 60s. In 1956, when she created the block association, she was 66-years-old. She was 66 for the ’60s. Not 66 now. Because now 66 is like 50 now. We are healthier beings. We live differently. But she was 66 in 1966.

Nancy: She was a little old lady.

Marlon: Yeah, she was a little old lady. She was a little old lady.

Nancy: And then the New York Times, which did cover her, they ran her obituary. Because the New York Times is now trying to make up for the fact that they rarely wrote up women of achievement. But they did write up Hattie, and they called her the tree lady. That’s what she was known as. And one of the reasons I’m so interested in her is that at The Confab, we’re telling the stories of change makers, and entrepreneurs, and women who against the odds created something of significance.

And Hattie checks off every characteristic required to get something off the ground. From having the vision, her stubbornness. People would say no to her and that didn’t deter her. She just kept going until she got a yes. Persistence, that over time … She did this for years. She put this all together. Her marketing savvy. The way that she wrote Lindsay. Her powers of persuasion. They used to call it force of personality.

Where like when she got the brownstones, which I love. She went in there and when the Board of Estimates said to her, “Oh, that’ll be 25,000.” And she went, “I don’t have 25,000. I’m just a little old lady and we’re all poor.” And, yeah, she got it for that 1200 you talked about. So she just gives a masterclass in how one person can galvanize troops around her to create change. And here you are now, handed this legacy. Do you feel like her spirit is something you’re talking to as you take on this job?

Marlon: Yeah, actually. I feel like I have a vested interest in continuing Hattie’s legacy. Because one of the things … So as I began to know who she was … So there’s certain things I had already known.

Like my grandmother had a friend named Alma Carol. Alma Carol was also from Portsmouth. And Alma Carol was also friends with Hattie Carthan. Alma was on the board. She was one of the first board members of the Magnolia Tree Earth Center.

Hattie Carthan, when she passed away, her funeral was held at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. It just so happens that for 11 years I served as the Director of Facilities and Events for the New York Society for Ethical Culture.

Nancy: Okay. Marlon, this was destined, wasn’t it?

Marlon: Right. There are things, like links, that every time I found another connector, it made me more vested in this legacy. Because it’s like, “Well, wow. Maybe I’m supposed to take this on. Maybe this is not just another job. But this is life’s work.” And so that’s what we’ve been doing.

We’ve been taking it very seriously. So one of the things I’ve done in my position is I founded the Magnolia Initiative. The Magnolia Initiative is an education component where we actually go into the Department of Education schools. And we teach urban ecology and we commission to re-design the school gardens.

School gardens are a very undervalued resource. A school garden, by having the kids engage in the process of gardening and harvesting, you can teach the kids so many different skill sets. You can teach them math. You can teach them entrepreneurship. You can teach them chemistry and science and the life cycle of a plant. The relationship between sun, air and water to growth and development of plant life.

All these are teachable moments in the course of gardening. And then also, even though Bedford-Stuyvesant is far and away what it was in the ’70s, there’s still a need for food access here. And there’s still a need for food knowledge and food access. And so the harvest from school gardens can be used as food access.

You can have kids sell at a farmer’s market. We have a bunch of community gardens in Bedstuy. Schools can donate their harvest to community gardens to be sold, to increase food access. So we’re taking that on. And up until this pandemic that shut everything down, we were in three schools. We were building two gardens. We had a hydroponics lab. So we had a full-

Nancy: Oh, nice.

Marlon: …hydroponics lab at PS 81 in Bedford-Stuyvesant where we were growing 11 different vegetables and herbs, and taking the kids through the entire process. And so that’s the extension of the work that Hattie provided. I believe in what Hattie says. I believe that if you give a kid the opportunity to grow something and you put his hands in the dirt, you let him plant the seed, you let him water the plant. You let him watch the plant grow into a mature plant. You let them harvest what was grown and you have him eat it. You create a lifelong connection between that child and the earth.

I was blessed to grow up in a brownstone where we had a garden in the backyard. So as a child, I grew tomatoes. I grew everything. We even grew watermelon in the back, in our garden, in my father’s garden. So I had that opportunity. But a lot of times, you take it for granted. I had that opportunity, but I didn’t realize until I was an adult man that it was special that I had that opportunity. Because other people don’t have that opportunity. They don’t have backyards. They can’t grow.

Nancy: And what does it take for this program that you started? What do you need to make it expand? You want to have it in all of Brooklyn schools?

Marlon: Yeah. We would love to be in like 5 to 10 schools in September. But obviously, because … So the other part of it is we run on a bare thin budget. We don’t really have enough money to do a lot of things. The three brownstones are a lot to maintain.

We do have renters. Non-for-profit organizations that rent space. But it’s a lot to maintain it. So it’s really a month-to-month thing. Funding is the biggest thing that we need right now. But some of it comes in a form of … when we do deal, contracts. Then that’s funding. And then with different city organizations, like Department of Youth and Community Development, gives us X amount of dollars every year. That sort of thing. It helps us get by. But to expand, you need more resources.

Nancy: Okay, so you need money from people?

Marlon: Yeah.

Nancy: Philanthropists?

Marlon: Yes. Absolutely.

Nancy: Okay. So is there anything else you want to ask for? Or challenges you’re facing that you would like help with?

Marlon: Wow.

Nancy: Come on, Marlon. Spit it out. Give me the top three.

Marlon: So the main thing is that our brownstones are in a state of repair. The facade of the brownstones are literally falling away from the edifice. So we have a scaffold around the tree.

Nancy: Oh, no.

Marlon: So we have to remove-

Nancy: Oh, no. You have that scaffolding?

Marlon: Yes. We have to remove the scaffolding. To remove the scaffolding, we honestly need to raise $1 million.

Nancy: Oh, my good-

Marlon: So we need to raise a lot of money. Because again, the facade needs to be repaired. It’s literally falling apart. And so we’ve been doing fundraising work, but we need to do a lot more. We have to save the Magnolia tree. Because one thing that I won’t accept is damaging, or God forbid, tilling this Magnolia tree on my watch. The Magnolia tree is a centerpiece for all the work. It truly is the beacon of urban environment for education in the entire state, in the nation possibly.

Nancy: In the country.

Marlon: In the country.

Nancy: Yeah.

Marlon: And so it needs to be protected. And that’s the main thing that we need right now, is we need to raise money so that we can remove the scaffolding and save the Magnolia tree.

Nancy: And to remove the scaffolding, you need the front of the building fixed?

Marlon: Yeah. Yeah.

Nancy: Okay. So Marlon, we’ll work on that one when we finish our interview. And that’s why we want to get out what Hattie did, this lost hero; and that you’re carrying the legacy forward. So I can’t emphasize enough how important your work is and how more of us have to come to your aid.

Marlon: Thank you.

Nancy: Marlon, thank you for sharing. You know so much about her and for sharing it with us.

Marlon: Absolutely.

Nancy: Thank you.

Marlon: I enjoy talking about Hattie and her vision, and I appreciate you giving us the platform to discuss our needs and our vision. So that’s great.

Nancy: Well, you got it, Marlon. Okay. Thank you so much.

Nancy: Just to give you a flavor of how both charming and persistent Hattie was, here is Hattie trying to find a way to buy the three brownstones that were behind the Magnolia tree. The Magnolia tree representing everything she wanted to do about greening up the Bedford-Stuyvesant of that era. As written up in the New York Times, “Mrs. Carthan once again went to the Board of Estimate, which she called my second home, and asked for their help.”

“They considered the matter and told me I could have them for 25,000, she says.” “I told them I was born poor, I live poor, and I’m going to die poor. I don’t beg, but these are for the community. I asked them to help me. They considered again and told me I could have them for 7,000. I told them, ‘That’s just fine. I didn’t have 25,000 and I don’t have 7,000,’ I said. Then they offered them for 4,000. I told them I didn’t have 25,000, I didn’t have 7,000, and I don’t have 4,000. Besides, I told them, we were doing our work without salary. So the city owed us something, Oh, I was so bold.” The board finally offered the buildings for $1,200 and she got that money from the McDonald’s owner and she bought them. Is she not the coolest? Can’t you imagine her? This little lady just going, “Well, no, not good enough. Not good enough.”

Copyright © 2020 Women's Wisdom Project




Marlon Rice //
Magnolia Tree Earth Center

Marlon Rice is the Founder of The Magnolia Initiative, an educational outreach program borne from his work as Executive Director at the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, an environmental non-profit based in Central Brooklyn. And, while his passion is in community service, Marlon is a man who wears many hats, among them author, journalist, and business consultant.

Marlon is a published author and the former Culture Editor for Heart and Soul Magazine. He is a contributing writer for numerous blogs, he has appeared in the Amsterdam News and he produces a weekly column in Our Time Press called The Thinker’s Notebook. Marlon is the Creator and Lead Instructor of First Voice, a writing workshop geared to introducing elementary school students to creative writing. Marlon is also the Owner of Good People NYC, a consulting firm geared to providing support to restaurants and lounges in the city with regards to customer service, revenue strategies, and brand management.

Marlon believes that community is essential, and serving the community is an absolute requirement. A marathon runner and father of 3, Marlon takes the most pride in his job as a father.