Magazine article American Forests

The Greening of North Philadelphia

Magazine article American Forests

The Greening of North Philadelphia

Article excerpt

Shovel power, good ideas, and personal energy are bringing pride back to these tough neighborhoods.

Neighbors recognize the blue pickup when it rolls through North Philadelphia. Some residents of what is one of Pennsylvania's most impoverished areas call out "Susan" or "tree lady" when it passes. The driver, Susan Phillips, has become so familiar in what narcotic police have dubbed Philadelphia's "badlands" that even drug pushers leave her alone.

Although Susan Phillips lives in a nearby neighborhood with her husband and child, she knows these streets as well as any resident. She's North Philadelphia's connection to Philadelphia Green, a treeplanting group whose mission is to green the City of Brotherly Love. Before she was hired in 1989 as the group's street-tree coordinator, her only experience with horticulture was pressing leaves when she was a child. Phillips, 40, and her "shovel division," a five-member, four-truck, one-Bobcat crew, have been planting trees for the past three years, and she says proudly that the neighborhoods are looking better every day.

Part of that outlook, she admits, is due to an increasing familiarity with the decrepit sights of that part of the city, but North Philadelphia's 14.3 square miles really are getting nicer, and greener. Phillips can recognize almost every new tree there as one that Philadelphia Green planted.

Philadelphia Green, part of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, started in 1978 with a staff of two; now it's up to 38 employees, has sponsored more than 2,000 greening programs in Philadelphia's gardens and along its streets, and was responsible for planting more than 925 trees in 1992. A $1.1- million grant in 1989 from the William Penn Foundation enabled Philadelphia Green to go full-force in North Philadelphia.

When Philadelphia Green hired Phillips, it gave her a daunting task: Encourage tree plantings in neighborhoods where vacant lots are used as dumpsters and demolished houses are commonplace. Phillips and a Spanish-speaking co-worker handed out pamphlets to passers-by, picking hot days when people were sitting on their stoops. She went door-to-door, asking people if they wanted to help plant a tree in their neighborhood. She visited local church groups and PTA meetings and sneaked into private townwatch gatherings, tactics she still uses to reach potential tree lovers. "Any time there were five or more people somewhere, I was there," she says. Today Philadelphia Green's waiting list for trees numbers several hundred applications.

Despite the continuous flow of treeplanting requests, Phillips wanted more contact with the Hispanic communities. But as a white woman from another neighborhood, the "tree lady" was an outsider. A U.S. Forest Service grant, aimed at helping minorities, gave Philadelphia Green the money to hire Jose Garcia, a former construction worker. Phillips says people find the young Spanish-speaking native of North Philadelphia to be more approachable; Garcia jokes, "Maybe it's my earring." With his help, Philadelphia Green has been able to reach clear across North Philadelphia.

The first major planting in North Philadelphia took place during the spring of 1990 on Seventh Street, a well-traveled bus route. That site was chosen for the inaugural eight trees--callery pears and hedge maples--at the request of resident Carmen Delgado, who contacted Philadelphia Green about getting trees for a lot across from her home. After completing the Seventh Street planting, the Shovel Division began digging tree plots in Delgado's once-trashed lot.

Delgado lives on the periphery of the west and east sides of North Philadelphia, a belligerent border between the black and Hispanic communities. Here, says Philadelphia Green's Patricia Schrieder, trees are the "glue" that bonds different ethnic groups together. Phillips adds, "On some blocks that are half black and half Hispanic, where neighbors seldom speak to each other, the tree program has given them a topic that's not controversial. …

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