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The Disappearance of the Tree Sweaters of 16th Street

Someone allegedly stole the four tree sweaters on 16th Street, between Seventh and Eighth avenues, on Sunday.

Four trees in Park Slope were stripped down to their skinnies, not by an arborist or carpenter ants, but rather by an alleged criminal.

On Sunday, four “tree sweaters” were allegedly stolen off the arbors on 16th Street between 2:30 and 3:45 p.m., according to the sweater knitter and artist, Laurie Russell.

The all-natural-fiber-knitted fashion caught the attention of Park Slope Patch in Feb. 2011, when our former editor, Kristen V. Brown, noticed three trees clad in red, saffron and turquoise sweaters. Brown eventually solved the “Tree Sweater Mystery” and responsible for keeping the trees warm and in vogue during the cold, barren months of winter.

But now, the trees, which have lost their leaves and now "clothing," are naked.

“I’ve always known something could happen, but it’s been four years, so I thought it was cool,” Laurie Russell, who 58 years old and knits as a hobby, told Patch on Monday.

Russell is not completely distraught over her loss, but she put a lot of work into her pastime. For the biggest tree sweater, which was on a thick London Plane tree, she spent four months knitting.

“I feel pretty discouraged, I can’t figure out why it happened,” Russell said of the alleged theft, which occurred in broad daylight.

Her husband and daughter saw the tree sweaters as they left the house at around 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, but by the time Russell came back home, around 3:45 p.m., she noticed that the sweaters were gone.

Russell, her husband and a couple of neighbors searched the surrounding area for the four sweaters, found no trace of them and posted flyers asking for anyone to return the arbor fashions.

She has not filed a police report and she does not plan on doing so. 

But this is not the first time the tree sweaters have gone missing.

Two years ago, one disappeared, but the next day, after they put up flyers, a man returned the sweater to a neighbor and quickly ran off.

Russell has no leads to who the alleged culprit is, and frankly, she said the community had such an “overwhelmingly positive” response towards the first sweater she made four years ago, that she was encouraged to make three more.

“Everyone was delighted by them, even strangers stopped me on the street and would say how nice they were,” Russell said, who was lived in Park Slope for over ten years and works at the Modern Language Association.

While on 16th Street on Monday, an 11-year Park Slope resident said that the tree sweaters made the block “welcoming and unique.”

“I’m so sad to see that they are gone! They were so cute, and each year there was a new one,” said Deborah Nocella, who was walking two dogs near the scene of the alleged crime. 

Russell’s idea for her first tree sweater was influenced by Christo and Jeanne-Claude's 2005 art installation in Central Park, The Gates, which was a series of fabric saffron colored “gates.”

Interestingly enough, “knitting graffiti artists” Knitta Please popularized the idea of covering everything from trees to parking meters in needlework, but Russell was unaware of them until after her first work.

She said the idea popped into her head out of boredom:

“…I was tired of making scarves,” Russell told Patch in 2011. “I was looking at dogs, sausage dogs, and [thought] about what a fun sweater shape that would be. But I don’t have a dog. So I started looking at trees as a simple ‘sweater.’”

But now, Russell is at a loss, and doesn’t know if she has it in her to keep on knitting for the trees.

“I just don’t know if I will replace them at this point,” Russell said, who has made a new tree sweater each year for the last four years. The biggest of which was composed of almost to seven skeins of yarn. “I’m not saying I won’t ever, I just am feeling discouraged right now,”

If you have any information on the whereabouts of the tree sweaters please E-mail Laurie Russell: elrussell16@gmail.com.

Patti A February 06, 2012 at 08:07 PM
Tree stewards are authorized to take those things off and toss them. If those get wet and remain on the tree, that area is susceptible to infection/damage. Also, please do not hang signs with tacks/nails/staples on the trees, as it appears in those pictures (particularly young trees).
Missy Jean February 06, 2012 at 08:56 PM
I have lived on this block my entire life and this sweater thing is so dumb. I can't believe you would spend your time knitting sweaters for trees who don't even feel cold temperatures. Wouldn't it make sense to spend your time knitting sweaters for homeless people, especially children who need them during the cold winter months. All you tree huggers are the reason why Brooklyn is going down hill. The sweaters don't make the block pretty. What the block needs is old school Brooklyn with kids playing wiffle ball and stick ball in the street. All you hipster care about is your dumb organic food and play dates...Woof! You really need to go back wherever you came from.
Stephanie Bart-Horvath February 06, 2012 at 09:59 PM
I have lived on 16th Street for twelve years and in Park Slope for 21 years. One of the sweaters was on a tree in front of my house (the red sweater). Every time I walked out my door, or came home at the end of a grey winter day, seeing those brightly decorated trees all snug in their sweaters made me happy, and I'm not the only one. I have seen countless numbers of people photographing the trees, photographing their friends in front of the trees, or just taking the time to stop and look and smile. Do the people who have a problem with this also have a problem with Christmas lights on outside trees, or for that matter, decorated dead Christmas trees inside their homes? If taking the time to knit tree sweaters is an either or situation (either knit the sweater or donate to charity) do these people also think that spending money on Christmas trees or decorations instead by donating that cost to charity is wrong? Does having brightly decorated trees keep kids from playing stick or waffle ball in the street? Maybe it's the cars driving down the street that stop that action! Maybe it's because it's been probably 50 years since kids played stick or waffle ball. I certainly would never have encouraged my child to play in a city street. Times have changed. Laurie's tree sweaters did a lot to bring a bit of color, happiness, and yes art to our street, and I am grateful for the time they were there. I hope that whoever took them brings them back.
rick sanchez February 07, 2012 at 01:38 AM
I always thought those things were eyesores. Good riddance.
Denise Walter February 07, 2012 at 11:00 AM
Just goes to show you can't please everybody. But, I'm so glad Park Slope Patch brought them to our attention. My daughter and I loved the concept of the tree sweaters....the idea of being kind to nature and actually thinking about a tree, and I'm so happy that we got to see them a couple of weeks ago before they were stolen. Seems like the sweaters were taken during school dismissal time. This may be just a child's (albeit on the older/taller side) prank, but I hope they are returned.
Parksloper February 07, 2012 at 08:07 PM
I'd rather see the beauty of the tree, not some colorful sweaters covering up the tree. Sweaters do not belong on trees. And If you're so concerned about the trees, why stick pins or tacks in them?
lxfan February 07, 2012 at 08:55 PM
Couldn't believe when I walked by yesterday and saw the signs hung up by no less than 6 tacks! Some people just have too much time on their hands...
harlan February 07, 2012 at 09:33 PM
It was the TLA.....the TREE LIBERATION ARMY, trying to save the trees.
arthur February 08, 2012 at 02:20 AM
The tree sweaters were/are delightful, goofy and beautiful. We photo'd them and the pictures were seen all over the world. There is a movement called Yarn Bombing, and these sweaters became a pretty famous addition. We will miss them.
Lisa February 08, 2012 at 03:03 PM
I am amazed by the vitriol against these delightful, whimsical treasures. As for the tacks, i see they were taken off the signs...no damage done. For goodness sake, those complaining that sweaters that would rot the trees..that's ridiculous. They are made of natural fibers, very loosely knit, dry quickly, and today, not to mention after 4 years on the first tree that had a sweater, there is zero sign that anything even touched the bark! Or the silly comment that trees don't need a sweater to keep warm....duh, and besides the point. Those complaining might consider helping the thousands of trees in the neighborhood by freeing them up from their tiny concrete encased pits, expanding and aerating the soil, planting flowers, etc. The tree sweaters were adorable and harmless, and brought much joy to this street, inspiring young kids to make their own public art. I hope they are returned, and soon.
arthur February 08, 2012 at 04:06 PM
So, Patti A, are you a 'tree steward?' Did you 'take these things off and toss them?' C'mon, fess up. These were removed during daytime, so it sounds more like some officious self appointed 'steward' than kid prank.
rick sanchez February 08, 2012 at 04:49 PM
Lisa - your comment might be more credible but for the MANY TACKS put in the trees to hang those signs.
arthur February 08, 2012 at 08:47 PM
Oh, Rick. Can you explain exactly what devastation those tacks did to the tree? I have seen flourishing trees with huge tree houses nailed to them -- hundreds of big deep nails! I have drawn syrup from maple trees with bores that go to the very heart of the tree. And i have watched tree surgeons bore into trees to check their age or health and then cut big limbs off. And the trees flourish despite these invasions. I'm sorry you didn't like the esthetics of the sweaters; you are welcome to your opinion. But tacks? c'mon.
Lisa February 08, 2012 at 09:22 PM
Thanks, Arthur. And the tacks came down after 2 days, so seriously...And none of the trees are very young, either. As for these being "eyesores", Rick, there are SO SO many sad eyesores in our neighborhood -- whether you like these aesthetically or not, the delight I've seen in children and strangers walking by is worth every bit of colorful yarn that someone took the time to craft for our pleasure. There can't be enough opportunities for joy and surprise in life.
rick sanchez February 08, 2012 at 10:51 PM
i dont' need to explain the devastation. i was pointing out that lisa is an idiot. not unlike you. syrup taps don't go into the 'heart' of trees. try one or two inches. but seriously, congratulations on seeing so many big deep nails on trees.
Stephanie Bart-Horvath February 08, 2012 at 11:53 PM
Rick, how did a few tacks grow into huge nails in your mind? Those trees bring happiness to us all year round and special happiness when we see them decked out in their fun finery. Today, my heart was gladdened when I walked down our street to find that several people have knit wonderful little sweaters to replace the ones that were stolen. Children, in particular, were in love with the idea of the tree sweaters. They are still not yet so shut down in their imaginations and so are still able to let themselves identify with living things on almost a symbolic level. It's a shame that as adults so many of us lose the ability to delight in something that may make us look at the world in a fresh way. I imagine that many more people stopped and really looked at those trees because of Laurie's lovingly knitted sweaters.
Lisa February 09, 2012 at 11:45 AM
Thanks, Stephanie. Actually, the tiny tree sweaters arrived yesterday from a group of middle school art students and their teacher from Brooklyn Charter who were inspired by the sweaters and saddened by the theft. And thanks to Rick for clarifying who is and isn't an "idiot". Good to know.
rick sanchez February 09, 2012 at 04:34 PM
steph - i'd suggest reading the message i was replying to, which happens to be directly above mine and refers to 'hundreds of big deep nails,' before asking dumb questions.
arthur February 12, 2012 at 03:12 AM
OK, Rick, look I only wrote about nails in trees because you and others who are against the tree sweaters have made so much of the tacks in the tree, as if that somehow makes us who like the sweaters insensitive tree haters. So I asked, and ask again, why are you so concerned with those tacks. I wrote about the nails as evidence that the tacks do no harm to the tree. I think you and the others are making a phony issue and your failure to answer only support my suspicion. As for your calling Lisa and me idiots, well, considering the source, I for one will wear it as a badge of honor.
rick sanchez February 13, 2012 at 02:50 PM
arthur - wear your fool's badge, what do i care? i am not SO against the tree sweaters. i found them tacky, commented that they were eyesores, and was happy to be rid of them. perhaps you should go back to watching tree amputations or whatever you do in your spare time (bore taps into the 'hearts' of trees? dramatic.); give patch commenting a rest.

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