Bella Vista is given a gift of green 

It's not money, but space - a spot for trees to put down roots.


They knew it might not be forever but, still, they planted trees.

Graceful golden-rain trees with cascading yellow blossoms. Slate-barked rubbers, trident maples, flowering crab apples. Trees with the pluck to withstand city life and hard winters. The members of Bel Arbor, a group of South Philadelphia urban gardeners, knew they were planting on borrowed land and borrowed time. They hoped for the best.

Who would have guessed they'd get it?

"The exciting news," said Bel Arbor president Carla Puppin, "is the owner of the property, who is a New York aeveloper, decided to donate it."

Bel Arbor was already three years into a five-year agreement allowing them to operate a tree farm on about one-third of an acre on the 1000 block of Kimball Street in Bella Vista. The Kimball Street Community Garden is adjacent, as are two commercial parcels on Washington Avenue developed by Lenard Thylan.

The gardeners had asked Thylan to consider donating the Kimball Street land but were told he wanted to use it for residential development. City Councilman Frank DiCicco lobbied on the gardeners' behalf, while they wondered if they could ever cobble together the money to buy the property.

In the end, they didn't have to. To their amazement, Thylan gave it to them.

"I thought it would benefit the community as well as our stores on Washington Avenue," the developer said.

Thylan, of course, does get some benefit from his charity. He figured the value of the tax write-off would be about the same as the profit he would have gotten if he had developed the property. Plus, he said, the promise of permanent green space can only enhance the value of two commercial properties on Washington Avenue, which include a CVS pharmacy.

Still, at a time when property values continue to soar - and neighborhoods such as Bella Vista have started to feel the ripple effect of escalating prices in Queen Village and Society Hill - the gardeners weren't holding their breath for a freebie.

"It's unusual for a private owner to donate a piece of land that has value to it," said Terry Mushovic, executive director of the Neighborhood Gardens Association, a Philadelphia nonprofit dedicated to preserving community gardens.

The Kimball Street plot was actually donated to the gardens association for the continued use of the Bella Vista neighbors.

In fact, Bel Arbor's newfound sense of security makes it a little bit unusual. Aside from public parks, most community greening projects - often lovingly tended oases tilled on formerly garbage-strewn lots - have no guarantees of their continued existence. Many are located on derelict private or publicly owned lots, and the citizens who have turned them from eyesore to asset have no legal or long-term claim to the land.

Last spring's battle between New York City greening activists and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was a case in point.

In the municipal-budget equivalent of rolling up spare pennies, Giuliani decided to put some 112 city-owned parcels that had been turned into community gardens on the auction block. Many were in the city's poorest neighborhoods, and community members, who in some cases had rescued the land from blight years before, cried foul. Giuliani's response was that if the gardeners wanted to keep the properties, they should buy them.

The day before the auction, entertainer Bette Midler came to the gardeners' rescue. Through her private conservation group, the New York Restoration Project, Midler came up with $1.2 million to buy 51 of the lots, plus $1 million that enabled the Trust for Public Land, another conservation group, to buy the other parcels for a total of $3 million. The gardens were saved.

Over the years, however, some community gardens in Philadelphia have not been so fortunate. Even Bel Arbor had already moved its trees more than once around Thylan's land as he developed it.

Still, the Bella Vista neighbors managed to create something special, well before they knew it would be for keeps. At the 1999 City Gardens Contests, their Kimball Street Community Garden, located on land belonging to the Christ Presbyterian Church, took first place. Bel Arbor took second place in the tree-farm competition. On land that backs up to the commercial spine of Washington Avenue, they have created a wildflower meadow and planted butterfly-attracting bushes and about 40 young trees.

This spring, as the Bel Arbor members always intended, the first of those trees will be old enough to transplant onto residential blocks in the neighborhood. The planting will be done with the help of a National Tree Trust grant, and the Bel Arbor members will continue to help with tree care for the first two years.

For most of the Bel Arbor's urban gardeners, tree growing was a different and distinct horticultural pursuit.

"A zucchini, if you mess up, it's no big deal. But a tree should last," said Stanley Bielen, 42, an artist who paints the roses he grows in the garden and is also active in the tree farm.

The tree farm and the garden seem to have led to something else lasting - friendships among neighbors and a sense of community.

"It's almost more than gardening. It's a way of bringing people together," said Claudia Archer, 37, a caterer.

In a neighborhood where some of the older residents have passed on and new families have moved in over the past several years, the Kimball Street plots have become a place of meeting and discovery for a new generation, children such as Archer's 5-year-old daughter, Page, and her buddies.

"We put a sandbox out there," Archer said. "The kids love to pick raspberries, and the strawberries never get past pale pink. It's like a gross-out contest. 'I can eat sorrel.' 'Well, I can eat Thai basil.' "
And then, of course, there are the trees. Some were barely two feet when they were planted. Puppin, laughing at herself, calls them "babies" and can't help fretting a bit over how they will fare.

"I guess I'm a little bit nervous," she said. "I hope the new owners will take good care of them."
A teacher of art history, Puppin can see the trees from her backyard.

"I find myself going out, watching them," she said. "In the spring, it's incredible to watch the buds come. You can almost watch them grow."
Even in these bare-limbed months, she sees beauty.

"Looking at a tree in winter," Puppin said, "you can see the structure."

Now it appears she and her neighbors will have that beauty to tend and enjoy for many years to come.

© 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

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Planting trees in the lot


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