A Tree Grows in Philly
Skip Wiener and the team at the Urban Tree Connection are sowing seeds of change in the city and beyond
by Gordon Glantz

In 1940, a Thomas Wolfe book called “You Can’t Go Home Again” was published posthumously.

Since 1989, Skip Wiener has been successfully dismantling the premise suggested by the title of Wolfe’s book.

Wiener grew up in the Haddington section of West Philadelphia but later moved away. When he returned to the vicinity between 52nd and 63rd streets, from Market to Girard, he found a community in decay.

Along with two others, he formed the Urban Tree Connection, with modest goals. The plan was simple. Take a blighted piece of property—say, a drug house or a chop shop—and turn it into a community garden involving both children and teens in garden clubs, while promoting nutrition in a fun way.

As simple as it sounds, it was initially like trying to split the atom.

“It was a career change for me,” he says. “I was no spring chicken. It was a mid-life career change. I’m a landscape architect when I said, ‘OK, Let’s be a hippie.’”

This was in the same part of town where his father inherited and grew a prosperous family business, the Universal Dental Co., which employed hundreds. Even so, his new neighbors were wary.

“At first, it was like, ‘Who is this white guy?’” he recalls. “But we gave it six months, and then another six months. People misunderstood that I grew up in the neighborhood. I didn’t go away. I became a fixture. I gained trust and respect.

“It was part of my history,” he continues. “These streets were my life. The message was that ‘I’m not a stranger to these streets.’ But there had been radical changes. Still, when I moved back, these people were still my neighbors. It was not a stretch for me. … And it just kind of evolved from there.”

The organization began to blossom along with its projects, which are byproducts of what Wiener calls “guerilla gardening.” His organization now has 14 staffers, along with several apprentices, and continues to outgrow itself.

“People don’t get much working for a nonprofit organization,” he says. “It’s a labor of love.”

While the organization “taught kids how to grow food,” Wiener says the women in the area “told us everything we were doing wrong.” He calls this process a “stepping stone” to where it is now, with politicians, churches and activists lining up to associate themselves with the guy who proved he could go home again.

The Urban Tree Connection (urbantreeconnection.org) now finds itself moving outside of the city limits, having formed an alliance with the Chester Housing Authority. The Urban Tree Connection was also the genesis of Neighborhood Foods, an organization devoted to unifying communities through urban farming and civic action. Additionally, numerous corporations have gotten involved—not just through donations but also by putting their shoes on the ground.

Food raised in the various Urban Tree Connection sites benefits nearby residents in a number of ways. In some cases, such as in Haddington, food is sold at a community market every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at subsidized prices, and residents can exchange time working in the garden for pounds of produce using work shares.

“We also host a small CSA in North Philadelphia organized by a local block captain, and food is used in health and wellness cooking lessons that [are] hosted for local residents,” Wiener explains. “Residents can also receive Fruit and Vegetable Prescription $5 coupons at the United Community Clinic’s Monday night clinic at the First African Presbyterian Church at 42nd and Girard.”

In YMCAs throughout West and North Philadelphia, the Urban Tree Connection also runs pop-up markets.

“As we have expanded, the pressure has gotten very intense,” says the 70-something Wiener. The organization has grown in a way he could never have envisioned in 1989, with offices shifting from Haddington to an industrial park on Parkside Avenue and a new, more expansive farm on Merion Avenue with a five-year lease.

“We are moving closer to being more professional,” he says, hinting at the end game for his role as executive director. “I never looked at it like an organization, but we are moving into the next phase.”

The next phase, as defined by Wiener, will include “departments with department heads”—in other words, a “more mature organization.”

He adds: “That’s the next generation, and it’s lovely that everything is going in that direction.”

Having successfully turned dozens of crime corners into 30 gardens and counting, the Urban Tree Connection also has 10 farms to its credit. An “immense expansion” has seen Wiener and his team “trip over” a four-acre site for a new farm that is a major boost from the current farm site of less than an acre.

The Urban Tree Connection acquires properties such as this in a variety of ways, including through the courts system and the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act of 2008; through purchase at sheriff sales; and by creating leases with the City of Philadelphia. Additionally, Wiener explains, the group works with several attorneys whose pro bono work has helped the Urban Tree Connection expand its footprint in and around the city.

As the organization has grown, so has its support system. Volunteers come from nearby colleges and universities such as Bryn Mawr, Drexel, Haverford, Messiah, Rutgers, St. Joe’s, Ursinus and Villanova.

“People began to notice,” says Wiener, who overcame problems learning in a traditional environment as a young student to earn two master’s degrees. “We went from under the radar to above the radar. It became time to up our game.”

The Urban Tree Connection boasts a massive list of funders, ranging from banks to financial companies to food chains.

“Many, many foundations in the region have been supporting us for years,” he says, adding that the nonprofit has received a number of grants, including an Impact 100 grant, over the years. “It got to the point at which we applied in Washington for a grant of $300,000 over three years. That made me realize that we weren’t playing around anymore. I haven’t messed up yet. We just keep on doing good work and keep our noses to the grindstone.”

Wiener is ecstatic to report that Kelvin Jeremiah, the president of Philadelphia Housing Authority, is “trying to replicate what we did,” but this time in the Abbottsford section of the city.

Beyond those signs of expansion of pinch-me proportions is the real victory. Nobody asks who Skip Wiener is anymore. The biggest impact, however, has been on the kids involved in the garden clubs and other activities and programs. Getting involved has become a cool thing to do.

“We have gotten these kids to look at the world differently,” he says. “It has become eye opening for people, both in and out of the neighborhood. We have crossed cultural boundaries—between rich and poor, and black and white.”

And it can all be attributed to one man.

“It’s been a mission, a life-work,” says Wiener. “People saw what was happening. They saw the passion, and they came to contribute.”

Photograph courtesy of the Urban Tree Connection