RPJ’s New York: The Christmas Tree Law
Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who served as New York City mayor from 1934 to 1945, is celebrated as one of the city’s most vibrant and colorful characters, and a champion of reform and progress in Depression Era New York. In 1938, however, he made a rare political misstep, which impacts the holiday season to this day. The Mayor, like many of his successors, was concerned about traffic congestion and the near impossibility of getting around town. He focused on the street peddlers whose carts jammed the city streets and sidewalks – much like pandemic-generated restaurant sheds and e-bikes do now.
In 1938, La Guardia’s target was Christmas tree vendors; he issued an order right before the holiday season that required tree vendors to obtain licenses, which were difficult, if not impossible, to acquire. As a result, the supply of trees suddenly dried up. The press jumped on the issue, accusing the Mayor of waging a “War on Christmas” (a familiar term). The City Council entered the fray and quickly passed the so-called Coniferous Tree amendment to the City Administrative Code. It states in relevant part: “Storekeepers and peddlers may sell and display coniferous trees during the month of December… on a sidewalk; but in any such case the permission of the owner of the premises fronting on such sidewalk shall be first obtained and a passageway shall be kept open.” NYC Admin Code Sec. 19-136 (a)(4). There is one caveat: the law contains an oddly specific list of streets where vendors are not allowed. So, for example, people who want to purchase a tree on Mermaid Avenue between West 17th Street and West 37th Street in Brooklyn are out of luck.
The uproar caused by Mayor La Guardia’s overreach 84 years ago is why the streams of friendly Canadians and hearty Vermonters grace our city every December, creating sidewalk forests for one magical month without having to get a license. In a city where bureaucracy can overwhelm, the Coniferous Tree exemption is a refreshing nod to the spirit of the season. And, in that same spirit, all of us at RPJ wish our clients, colleagues, and friends the happiest of holidays and a joyful New Year.
This article is intended as a general discussion of these issues only and is not to be considered legal advice or relied upon. For more information, please contact RPJ Partner Alice K. Jump who counsels clients on litigation, alternative dispute resolution and business counseling, with particular emphasis on representing clients in the financial services and real estate industries as well as educational and non-profit institutions. Ms. Jump is admitted to practice law in New York and before the United States District Courts for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York and the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.