John Steinbeck, the great American author, had occassion to notice Ailanthus. He describes them in his essay “The Making of a New Yorker” for the New York Times in 1943.
The very first time I came to the city [New York] and settled was engineered by a girl. Looking back from the cool position of middle age I can see that most of my heroic decisions somehow stemmed from a girl. I got an apartment on East 51st Street between First and Second Avenues, but even then I kept contact with my prejudices. My new home consisted of the first and second floors of a three-story house and the living room looked out on a small soot field called a garden. Two triumphant Brooklyn trees called ailanthus not only survived but thumbed their noses at the soft coal dust and nitric acid which passed for air in New York.I was going to live in New York but I was going to avoid it. I planted a lawn in the garden, bought huge pots and planted tomatoes, pollinating the blossoms with a water-color brush. But I can see now that a conspiracy was going on, of which I was not even aware. I walked miles through the streets for exercise, and began to know the butcher and the newsdealer and the liquor man, not as props or as enemies but as people.
[The webpage from which I originally swiped the passage is down or moved. You can read the whole essay at Google’s cache of the page.]