Kevin Riordan: Cherry Hill cherry tree fan still loves the blossoms

Joe Zanghi has worked to plant cherry trees along a two-mile stretch of Chapel Avenue. After 40 years, his dream is close to completion.
Joe Zanghi has worked to plant cherry trees along a two-mile stretch of Chapel Avenue. After 40 years, his dream is close to completion. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 08, 2013

When the Chapel Avenue cherry blossoms put on their April show, Joe Zanghi treasures the view from the west at sunset.

"The light comes in at an angle," he says, a touch of awe in his voice. "The trees are so pink, so predominantly pink, that you just have to look at them."

The arboreal extravaganza - a scenic rite of spring in Cherry Hill - would not have taken root were it not for Zanghi. And after 40 years, his dream of completing the two-mile expanse of cherry trees between Haddonfield Road and Kings Highway is becoming a reality.

"I never thought it was going to happen in my day," says Zanghi, 77, who planted the first tree near what is now Kennedy Memorial Hospital in 1973.

Responding to a request from Mayor Chuck Cahn, PSE&G decided to remove the last 16 hardwood trees that interrupted the rows of cherry trees along the Chapel Avenue sidewalks.

Spokeswoman Kristine Snodgrass says the work may be done as soon as this week, and Zanghi vows to fill those gaps with cherry trees as soon as possible.

"Joe has put his heart and soul into transforming Chapel Avenue . . . and I admire and appreciate his passion for our community," says Cahn, adding, "Cherry Hill will be proud to see the project completed."

Camden County Freeholder Jeff Nash says the Chapel Avenue trees benefit the entire township. And he calls Zanghi, whom he's known since 1989, "a Cherry Hill legend."

Zanghi has a somewhat different take on himself. "I can be a pain in the ass at times," observes the man behind the planting of 1,400 cherry trees on the avenue and elsewhere in town.

A proud Girard College grad who rose from draftsman to data configuration manager at RCA in Camden, he bought many of the trees himself. They're all of the Kwanzan variety, with plush double blossoms that transform each bushy thicket of branches into a pillowy cloud of pink.

A single tree went for $25 in the '70s and can cost as much as $175 today; Zanghi's wife of 57 years, Betty, owns a flower shop in town and can sometimes get discounts.

"I couldn't put a price on how much I spent. Whatever I had to do, I did," Zanghi says.

He credits longtime supporters such as American Legion Post 372 and the Cherry Hill Fire Department, for helping make the project possible. Zanghi and his three children planted trees during the early years; more recently, firefighters and other volunteers have pitched in.

The Zanghis moved to Cherry Hill's Windsor Park neighborhood from Southwest Philly in 1967. Joe and Betty still live two blocks from Chapel Avenue in a split-level they bought for $28,000 in 1967.

"My brothers and their families moved over here," Zanghi recalls, sitting in the sunroom. "We saw the benefits of living in the suburbs."

But in 1972, after six people were killed during a shooting at a township office building, "I started reading these negative articles about Cherry Hill," Zanghi says. "And it upset me."

He became convinced that creating a boulevard of beauty, and staging an annual parade and festival, would counter what he calls the "negativity" in the media. It would also inspire the sort of community spirit he grew up with in the city.

The '70s and early '80s were the parade's glory years; a slide show online at cherryblossomsincherryhillnj.yolasite.com shows a black-haired Zanghi amid big crowds as elaborate floats, marching bands, Mummers brigades, and giant balloons parade.

He still hopes to have some sort of event to mark the 40th anniversary of the first parade. And he's got a few more cherry trees to plant.

"I'll start drumming up donations," he says. "I'm not worrying about that. I can go and knock on doors if I have to."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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