Throughout Callowhill, stenciled around the base of newly planted trees are messages reading "THIS IS A TREE". It seems silly, and perhaps for the more cynical Philadelphians, even annoying. But in a city in which AstroTurf is a passable substitute for grass and parents routinely employ their children to mar saplings with box cutters, it's clear that many need reminding.
As early as kindergarten, I was taught that trees breathed life into all living animals. But trees aren't just necessary for life. They cool our streets by providing shade. They absorb the water that cools the ground. In the winter they provide natural insulation both above and below ground. Basic science tells us how much plants and animals need each other, but the City of Philadelphia seems defiant in its acceptance of all things vegetative.
When South Street decided to chop down its mature trees in lieu of new ones, the temperature difference between the strip and adjacent tree lines street was at some times more than ten degrees. That's significant to both your quality of life and your electric bill. But why are cities like D.C., Atlanta, and even New York overflowing with greenery while Philadelphia's most densely populated streets are barren of any vegetative life?
Take South Philadelphia if you're familiar, and try to think of a single backyard you know of that isn't made of concrete, or even has a tree. I've seen window boxes with plastic flowers. When you do see a newly planted tree, the bark has most likely been stripped by a knife in an effort to make it die.
Some streets are small, yes, but where did this violent hatred of trees come from?
Like most bad ideas, it came from the 1950s, and like most of what is wrong with Philadelphia, it lingers in those who still think that way. That's why you'll find trees in University City and Society Hill, neighborhoods that aren't home to those with 60 years of mid-century baggage.
It's no doubt that by the 1940s, Philadelphia had become a disgusting and polluted dump that probably smelled worse than a bad day in Sao Paulo. But it was the subtleties of the campaign, perhaps inadvertent, that bred a generation to look at trees and see squalor. In their minds, trees were dirty.
I've heard the argument, irrational as it may seem, that many older Philadelphians don't like trees because "they slip on the leaves." I've never heard that anywhere else.
Take this picture of a clean-up campaign from the 1950s. In an era when many residents are fleeing the city for greener pastures, those determined to stay were looking for any reprise from the filth. I'm sure if you could smell the streets of 1949 you'd probably vote for street sweepers and concrete too, but painting trees as synonymous with blight did five decades of irreparable psychological damage.
Treeless playgrounds are paved with rubber, asphalt dog parks have only several patches of dead grass, and sweltering streets roast under an unshaded sun. As the exhaust of their air conditioners and cars make these streets boil, residents step outside to grab their mail and still have the audacity to complain about the heat, returning to their living room to turn the thermostat down below 60.