Kevin Riordan: Trees are making Camden bloom

Maple, lilac, and cherry trees along Kaighn Avenue near Third Street. The N.J. Tree Foundation has helped plant 4,808 trees in Camden since 2002.
Maple, lilac, and cherry trees along Kaighn Avenue near Third Street. The N.J. Tree Foundation has helped plant 4,808 trees in Camden since 2002. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 07, 2013

Joe Travis and his fellow gardeners in Morgan Village put in apple, pear, and plum trees.

Across town in East Camden, Betty Louie and her neighbors planted Okame cherries.

And at the Neighborhood Center in Camden's Bergen Square section, volunteers helped Beth McMillan add Japanese lilacs, red maples, and a stately Zelkova to the landscape.

"We've done more than 135 varieties and 70 species in the city," says Jessica Franzini, program coordinator for the New Jersey Tree Foundation. "Since 2002, we've helped people plant 4,808 trees in Camden."

One of a number of nonprofits involved in environmental work, urban agriculture, and community gardening in the city, the foundation provides trees to residents, churches, and civic groups willing to plant and maintain them on streets and public land.

Trees can improve the quality of air, water, and life in general; they suggest that people care, and that a neighborhood is improving.

"These are 'Winter King' hawthorns," Franzini says, referring to an impressive stand on the 600 block of Royden Street. "They have white flowers in the summer, and red berries in the fall."

I'm riding with the Pennsauken resident, who's 27, in the foundation's pickup truck. We pass at least a half-dozen blocks that have been transformed from stark to lush in the battered asphalt heart of the city west of Broadway.

Nowhere are the foundation's salutary effects more dramatic than on the 400 block of Royden Street, an area the illegal drug trade has made notorious for as long as I can remember.

But on a recent sunny morning, verdant rows of Callery pear trees lend the block the look of a shaded garden.

Modest rowhouses have been outfitted with window boxes and sidewalk benches, and gauzy, oversize butterfly decorations are fastened to every tree in sight.

"We decorate for every season, every holiday. The trees are lit up white at night," says Benigno "Pino" Rodriguez, 57, who has lived on the block for 18 years.

"It gives people a sense of pride," he says. "Life can be normal here."

In many Camden neighborhoods, decades of disinvestment, decay, and dysfunction have sapped social capital, eroding both the number of and the connections among citizens willing to participate in civic life.

Planting and caring for trees has enabled neighbors to get to know each other, notes Louie, 53, a licensed practical nurse who has lived at 32d and Highland for 21 years.

"On our planting date, we got together and barbecued," she says. "It looks very nice. And we're not finished yet."

At the Neighborhood Center, a Methodist agency that has served Camden families for 100 years, the new trees include several that will bear edible fruit.

"It's a demonstration to Camden residents that you can grow [food] here," says McMillan, whose programs include a free daily lunch for as many as 150 people.

One way to help pay for that program would be by selling home-baked goods using fruits from the fledgling orchard, she adds.

Franzini says a $20,000 grant from the Campbell Soup Foundation has enabled the Tree Foundation to begin providing additional fruit-bearing trees to groups like the gardeners of Morgan Village.

"We had a few fruit trees already," Travis, 60, says. "But the more we have, the more fruit we can give away."

The foundation, which operates in Newark as well, spends about $165,000 annually in Camden and is largely supported by grants and private donations. City Hall "has been a great help" providing permits and excavation work needed for planting street trees, says Franzini.

"We work with people who really want to beautify their blocks, who are really dedicated to their city," she adds. "They're the people who can lift the city up."


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

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