A tree grows inside a North Philly home

PHOTOS: HELEN UBIÑAS / DAILY NEWS STAFF Weed trees like this Clearfield Street one are fairly common.
PHOTOS: HELEN UBIÑAS / DAILY NEWS STAFF Weed trees like this Clearfield Street one are fairly common.
Posted: July 25, 2014

IT'S HARD to pinpoint just how long the tree that took root inside the crumbling home at 2821 W. Clearfield St. had been there.

Who knows . . . until we noticed it coming out of the house, said William Taylor, who owns the house next door.

For sure, his niece Nicole Buskey said it was there when she got married in 2011 and moved to Germantown. And it was there, even larger, when she got divorced and came back to the family home last year.

She thinks it might have pushed through the rotting roof sometime in 2007, which might explain why another uncle, Steven Nelson, didn't notice it when he went to prison in 2005. But he certainly noticed it when he got out in 2013 and couldn't believe, a year later, that there it still stood.

"I got a tree growing inside the house next door and another tree out back that's turned the backyard into some kind of rain forest," Nelson called to say. "And it doesn't seem like L&I is in any rush to fix it."

Nelson was not exaggerating about those trees. A tree wasn't just growing inside the rear of the crumbling home next door, it was holding up part of the exposed second floor that had collapsed onto it.

Buskey said she was on the front porch when she heard her kids screaming, "The house is falling, the house is falling." "If it wasn't for that tree, all of that would have come down and onto our house," she said pointing to a mattress filled with debris resting on top of a limb.

Another limb from a huge tree in the backyard of the property took out part of the family's fence and - just like Nelson had said - turned their backyard into a steamy swampland with angry, blood-sucking mosquitoes. As I furiously swatted them away, I envisioned the headline: Reporter Dies After Contracting West Nile Virus in North Philly.

When I called Licenses and Inspections Commissioner Carlton Williams about the house, he wasted no time getting someone over to take a look, and then start tearing it down. And while I was surprised to see such a huge tree growing out of a home, Williams was not.

It's quite common, he said. Weed trees take root inside vacant homes and the next thing you know they're tearing up fences, foundations and walkways. Usually trees on private property or in shared alleys are the homeowner's responsibility - unless it becomes such a safety issue that the city needs to step in.

The home on Clearfield Street near 29th had been in the L&I system since at least 2003 for various violations. The absentee owner, listed on L&I records as Theresa Lockhart, owes more than $17,000 in back taxes. Williams said the Revenue Department initiated a tax foreclosure action last month.

In 2012, the home was deemed imminently dangerous, which became even more fitting last week. Demolition had to be halted and neighbors evacuated when one of the construction crew members found a grenade. Police said it was a practice grenade that wasn't explosive.

Ideally, at least in my book, properties classified as imminently dangerous would be taken down on the spot. But Williams said with limited resources and an ever-growing list of problem properties, it's more of a triage situation.

"We have to deal with the worst of the worst first," he said.

Williams said there are nearly 600 revolving imminently dangerous cases throughout the city, meaning as some come down, others are added as their conditions worsen.

"We took down 518 properties last year and now our list has gone back up to 597," he said.

Make that 596-ish.

When I checked in on the Clearfield Street property yesterday morning, most of the house was down and the crew was preparing to take down the trees.

The extended Taylor family was thrilled, and preparing to reclaim their backyard. Years ago, they'd put some lawn chairs out back that you could still sort of spy under all the debris. Soon, they'll be able to use them.

Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

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