Fishtown’s disappearing trees

A tree on the 400 block of Belgrade Street was recently removed at request of the landowner. Many trees like these are removed due to the damage it causes on the block’s infrastructure. CAROLAN DIFIORE / STAR PHOTO

Doris Morris has lived in Fishtown for more than 50 years, and remembers full well the multitude of trees that lined the streets of her neighborhood growing up. As she walks down Montgomery Avenue nowadays, these trees are few and far between.

“We had a lot of trees,” Morris said. “I am sad, in a way, because they were so beautiful.”

Many Fishtown residents have begun to take notice of the lack of green life in the neighborhood.

In recent years, the city has removed thousands of dead or dangerous trees from streets throughout the city, according to reports.

Denis Devine, who’s lived on Belgrade Street for the past five years, also expressed his dismay that the trees have to be taken down. The necessity of their removal, however, is understandable, he said.

“I’m sad to see the trees go,” Devine said while walking his two small children around the neighborhood.

Despite neighbors’ complaints at the dwindling amount of green life in their area, officials insist that trees that are removed are done so out of necessity.

Timothy Gill, director of marketing and promotions for the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, said trees that are taken down are deemed unsuitable to remain standing.

“These are dead and dangerous trees, usually removed at the request of the homeowner,” Gill said. “Very rarely do we take down a live, healthy tree.”

Despite the number of trees being removed, there are multiple efforts being made to replant the trees. Jacelyn Blank, co-founder of Philly Tree People, a nonprofit that works to plant new trees in the local community, has a background in tree tending that runs in the family.

“My dad’s a landscaper, so there’s a lot of history behind why this is so important to me,” she said. “After moving to the city, I was appalled at how much green life there really wasn’t.”

A Kensington resident, Blank met Nykia Perez at East Kensington Neighbor Association meetings. The pair, along with Dina Richmond, bonded over their interest in tree tending and started Philly Tree People in 2007 to bring more trees to the neighborhood.

“We decided to just do it and see what happened,” Blank said. “It stinks to lose these old things.”

Blank said she was overwhelmed by the response for their first planting, when they planted about 70 trees.

“I feel really, really good when it’s volunteer day and we get almost all the time 100 volunteers,” Blank said.

Year after year, Blank said she began to recognize familiar faces coming out to plant more trees in the neighborhood.

“People have come to really anticipate the plantings,” she said.

Devine and his wife planted a tree near their home on Belgrade Street shortly after the birth of their son in November 2011, and plan to put another tree in their backyard for their other son, who is only a few months old.

After seeing the amount of destruction the trees can have on the block’s infrastructure, such as breaking underground pipes and overhead wires, he said many are afraid to plant more trees because of the possibility for future damage.

“There’s a calculated risk you take when you plant in the neighborhood,” Devine said. “You have to make sure the trees can coexist with the existing infrastructure.”

On the other side of the debate, there are also many benefits to having trees in the neighborhood.

“Unfortunately some trees do have to come down, and it’s devastating, but the overall beauty of the trees I think are the best benefit,” Blank said.

As times change, Blank said the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is learning more about which trees are best to plant in city neighborhoods.

Small trees, she said, are better because they won’t tamper with the utility structure and electrical wiring.

“It’ll involve a lot of trial and error,” Blank said, “but the benefits of the trees are too important to pass up.”

The spring planting will take place Sunday, Apr. 27 at 10 a.m. at 2771 Jasper St.

They are also now accepting applications for new trees to be planted in fall 2014. For more information, visit www.phillytreepeople.org.