For approximately 10 years, next-door neighbors Crisalida Mejia and Silva Tina Lawson lived in fear that an overgrown tree towering over their Harrowgate properties would fall onto their homes.
The large tree, which was located on the sidewalk of Schiller Street next to Harrowgate Park, deeply impacted the women’s lives, especially at night during strong storms and hurricanes.
“I had to abandon my room in the front of the house because if that tree fell, it would have hit me,” Mejia said. “I went to a room in the back of the house because I was scared to sleep there.”
Finally, in August 2021, Mejia had enough. It was hurricane season, and she traveled to her native country, the Dominican Republic, to get away from the tree. The Atlantic hurricane season starts on June 1 and lasts until November 30. She stayed there for about two months.
In contrast to Mejia, who moved into the neighborhood about 10 years ago, Lawson has lived in Harrowgate since the late 90s. Years ago, when Lawson’s children were small, she would sleep with her kids in the kitchen during hurricanes to avoid getting hurt should the tree fall on her house.
“I didn’t identify the tree when I first purchased the home, or I wouldn’t have purchased it,” Lawson said. “I was just so happy being a first-time homeowner and starting my new life with my kids in a new area.”
Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation is in charge of the City’s free street tree maintenance, which includes tree trimming and removals. However, between the department’s tree removal policies and limited city funding, residents dealing with hazardous trees may not receive the quick help they need.
‘It was my mission to get that tree down’
Between 2014 and 2020, Lawson and Mejia both struggled to get Parks and Rec to remove the tree through Philly311 and communication with city officials. Over the years, they ran into several challenges, including language barriers and long wait times.
With help from a friend, Mejia, who speaks limited English, was referred to City Councilmembers Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and then Mark Squilla. Meanwhile, as a former block captain, Lawson used her knowledge to contact Philly311, city councilmembers, and city departments. She kept track of the calls in a notebook.
“It was my mission to get that tree down,” Lawson said.
The Parks and Recreation street tree team makes decisions about tree maintenance requests based on information from staff inspectors, wrote Parks and Rec spokesperson Maita Soukup in an email. However, Parks and Rec denied Lawson and Mejia’s separate requests, which they made between 2014 and 2020. According to both residents, the inspector said the tree was “alive” and therefore couldn’t be removed. Instead, one of the tree’s branches was pruned.
Their decision was in line with Parks and Rec’s tree removal policy. According to the City’s street tree maintenance request page, Parks and Rec can trim street trees and remove “dead and hazardous street trees” but can’t remove “living, healthy trees.”
“Parks and Rec can remove trees that pose an imminent danger to residents, however, we only do so in extreme circumstances,” wrote Soukup in an email. “Typically, we aim to provide free pruning to remove the hazard while allowing the tree to remain.”
Parks and Rec doesn’t have an appeal process for its street tree maintenance decisions, leaving Lawson frustrated.
“I’m telling the people who are supposed to help me with this — being a resident of this community and a homeowner — that my home is in jeopardy,” she said. “Nobody wants to do anything because the tree is more important. So, I just threw my hands up.”
‘We need our city to increase funds in order for our tree canopy to be cared for’
In October 2021, a few months after Kensington Voice contacted the City to inquire about the issue, Parks and Recreation removed the tree. According to Soukup, the tree was removed “due to the level of imminent danger it posed to residents.” Lawson and Mejia were relieved. However, Lawson said other trees around her property, on the block, and in Harrowgate Park still need maintenance.
Soukup said Parks and Rec has a backlog of pruning, tree planting, and tree removal requests; there is often a waitlist for pruning due to demand outpacing available resources.
“Additional funding will be required to address the backlog and provide residents more timely inspection, pruning, and planting services for street trees,” Soukup added.
Philadelphia has one of the most underfunded Parks and Recreation systems in the country reported The Inquirer. Each spring, the city budget for the next fiscal year is proposed by the mayor, and then City Council invites city departments to provide testimony on the proposed budget and holds public hearings before approving a final budget by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the entire city budget decreased, and Parks and Rec’s funding for the 2021 fiscal year was cut by 20%. The proposed city budget for the 2023 fiscal year includes a budget increase for the Parks and Rec department. The final budget will most likely be approved this Thursday. However, as is the case for other city entities like the Free Library of Philadelphia, advocates argue that even more funding is still needed.
According to Jacelyn Blank, a co-founder of the volunteer-operated nonprofit organization Philly Tree People, Parks and Rec’s free street tree maintenance is rarely an option for residents due to a lack of city funding. As a result, property owners have few alternatives, such as reaching out to city-approved contractors and paying for tree services themselves.
“We need our city to increase funds in order for our tree canopy to be cared for,” wrote Blank in an email to Kensington Voice.
Harrowgate tree tender: ‘We can make them trees that people will be glad to have’
Frank Coyle, a lifelong Harrowgate resident, has been a tree tender for over a year now thanks to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s basic training class on how to plant and care for trees.
“I take care of trees and keep them from becoming something you don’t want, that you enjoy having, by keeping them trimmed and in good shape,” Coyle said.
During a visit to Harrowgate Park, Coyle told Kensington Voice that a majority of the trees in the park are in good condition except for a few that need to be trimmed or possibly removed. Coyle said that most of the street trees on Lawson and Mejia’s block appear to be in good shape but need trimming. However, a couple of the trees’ roots are pushing up the sidewalk pavement and creating a hazard for pedestrians.
“If we could get to them before they get too overgrown and start causing problems, we can make them trees that people will be glad to have,” he said.
Do you need help caring for your trees?
Here is a list of local resources about tree maintenance, tree planting, and tree tenders. If you have a resource to add, email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will gladly add it below.
- You can read Parks and Rec’s responses to frequently asked questions about street trees here.
- To request free street tree maintenance, which includes pruning and removal, click here. To request an inspection of a street tree that may be hazardous, email email@example.com.
- Property owners can request a list of city-approved contractors for tree services by contacting the Parks and Rec Street Tree Contract Management Office by phone at 215-685-4363/215-685-4362 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Want to become a PHS Tree Tender? Click here for more information.
- TreePhilly, a program led by Parks and Rec and the Fairmount Park Conservancy, helps residents plant and care for street and yard trees. Read more about TreePhilly here.
- Philly Tree People (PTP) is a volunteer-operated nonprofit organization trained by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS). The organization helps property owners in the 19125 and 19134 ZIP codes apply for free street trees, runs a Pruning Club, and organizes bi-annual street tree plantings. Read more about PTP here.
Editors: Jillian Bauer-Reese, Siani Colón / Designer: Zari Tarazona