Curbs of Allure
This piece was written for Rob Walker’s Narrative Strategies for Objects project as part of the 2019 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive, and published in Overlooked/Underappreciated, an examination of the minutiae of quotidian life.
“Please curb your dog.” A plea no bigger than a postcard faces the street with a logo, “Curb Allure,” stamped in the corner. The small post sits behind a glass encased in aluminum or steel and looks welded to the fence. The fence is only a foot high and guards a tree. If you’re not familiar with Curb Allure, it’s the latest brand name in tree guards. They enclose the kind of trees that line the streets of the West end of Manhattan or Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
A city tree has an average seven-year lifespan, says the Curb Allure website. That’s because they’re exposed to the elements that tend to sweep across city streets: sewage, trash, feces, cars, humans. Aside from guarding the tree from chaos, they also help contain trees that can overgrow and bust up street surfaces. After spending $1,300 trying to install tree guard for her upper Manhattan street tree, the founder of Curb Allure decided to change the retail landscape, and now the company, along with design and distribution, plans to launch their guards into the market. A Daily News article appearing in Google after searching “Curb Allure” makes a clear endorsement: “The side of the block with tree guards looks healthier, more upscale, safer and pleasant.”
There is a little pleasure in seeing these guards protecting trees and rain gardens from collecting garbage. From a formal perspective, the guards hint at artistry but not enough to make a lasting impression. Their embellishments and metal framework blend into the fabric of the city until it’s time to cross the street. Their “allure” mostly extends to having a metal, sometimes iron, finish. It’s the backdrop for tree guards fill in for their lack of allure; sparkling high-rises, Lululemon everywhere, dainty coffee shops, designer dogs. In a wider view, where guards pervasively enclose curbside trees, their unison sends a more intense message. In these neighborhoods where “safer and pleasant” are conflations of upscale, a chorus of tree guards ring out: “You probably can’t afford to live here / You might be stopped and frisked.”
Tree guards stake out neighborhoods that are already priced out. On a city planning level, it’s a simple way to convey a higher living standard. On an individual level, they’re an expensive signifier of ownership. The same way door numbers can be standard numerals or written-out in a decorative typeface. Or the way a residential fence can be chain-linked or iron-gated with swooping Art Deco embellishments. A tree guard lets the tree’s owner, or tree’s neighbor, convey their ownership and economic ability. And, like a fence, they remind denizens who wander past that they protect private land. Today, the Curb Allure guards are exclusively installed by the New York Tree Trust “when a donation is made to the New York Tree Trust.” The lowest donation tier starts at $680. Hopefully someday every tree, regardless of household income, can sport a guard. Until then, please curb your dog.