Skip Wiener knows it sometimes takes a little dirty work to make a difference, which is why he founded the West Philadelphia-based non-profit organization, Urban Tree Connection. The Urban Tree Connection’s purpose is to revitalize vacant lots and homes into green spaces, promoting community engagement in low-income areas within the Parkside and Haddington communities through gardening and farming.
Wiener, who grew up in the neighboring Wynnefield community, started Urban Tree Connection in 1989 after noticing the growth in number of vacant homes in Philadelphia.
“I saw how desperate the open space situation was and how there was such a lack of resources in the city to wrap their heads around the vacant lots,” said Wiener.
Urban Tree Connection eventually found it’s home in Haddington when they took over a vacant block within Haddington Homes, a Philadelphia Housing Authority complex, to open the Pearl Street Garden.
“Slowly but surely, we chased the (drug) dealers out,” said Wiener. “Then we started growing food with kids on Pearl Street and it became very successful.”
The success of the Pearl Street Garden led to block captains in the Haddington area requesting help from Urban Tree Connection to tend to other vacant lots, which had become drug-dealing houses in the community.
Since the opening of Pearl Street Garden in 2001, Urban Tree Connection has created eight gardens on 29 different community lots, totaling 2.5 acres of land within a ten-block radius in Haddington, including the Senior’s Rose Garden and the Memorial Garden, which was built following the fatal shooting of four Haddington teenagers.
Urban Tree Connection has also expanded their programs. In addition to opening farms, they also contribute to Philly Foodworks.
Karen Bustard, the youth program coordinator for Urban Tree Connection, manages and directs after school and weekend programs for community members from ages four to eighteen.
“The kids step up their own leadership and responsibility when they get their own bed to take care of,” explained Bustard. “They choose which crops they want to plant for the season. They harvest it and build a customer base and sell throughout the community.”
However, Wiener explained, Urban Tree Connection is not just for the youth or those with a green thumb.
“It is for everybody,” he said.
Residents of the community are allowed to grow crops or participate in work shares in exchange for food. Every Saturday, block captains involved with Urban Tree Connection host a farmer’s market and workshops on cooking, juicing, gardening, and soap making in the Haddington Farm, located at 53rd Street and Wyalusing Avenue.
“It has become a mini-economic engine for a lot of people in the community,” said Wiener.
Joann Manuel, a block captain and board member for Urban Tree Connection, works at the farmer’s market every weekend.
“We love Urban Tree Connection and what they do for the neighborhood,” said Manuel.
Urban Tree Connection works onsite in different gardens throughout the week and hosts volunteer opportunities for outside organizations.
– Text, images, and video by Julian Hamer