Dispatch: After a friend’s death, still loving the outdoors in wind or rain, beauty or pain

Illustration by Ruo Fei Zhang

Illustration by Ruo Fei Zhang

Beauty in Every Moment

essay by Mike Sparks

Most of my friends refer to me as an adventurist, but I don’t think of myself that way—I just love to be outdoors. My three most common modes of transportation are biking, running and motorcycling, and I’m happy whether the sun is on my face or my cheeks are wet with rain, snow or sleet. There is a story of John Muir climbing into the high pines in the Sierras during a storm so he “could feel what the trees feel.” Yeah—I can dig it. 

I’ve gone to Tanzania and climbed Kilimanjaro. I’ve climbed Mount Washington in the summer and in the winter. I’ve paddled my inflatable kayak from Philadelphia to Baltimore, ridden my bicycle from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh and hiked my kayak 6 miles up the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey just to paddle on Sunfish Pond. 

On a mid-March weekend in 2015, I was hiking and camping with two friends on the Appalachian Trail in western Maryland. It was later in the winter season than we would have liked, but we did get some sleet that Friday night that forced us into the shelter for the evening. We joked about how at least we got “a little bit of winter,” despite the weekend’s above-average temperatures.

For the next two days, we happily hiked along a little section of the Appalachian Trail. We prepared dinner at a backpackers’ campsite along the trail on Saturday night, where we were visited by a goat we dubbed the Western Maryland Mountain Goat. We finally hiked back to the shelter just in time to swap trail stories around the campfire, and boasted with pride at being the only ones to have spotted him. Though the camp was cramped that night, we all had a great time. 

As we were preparing to hike out that Sunday morning, winter kicked in again and a strong gust of wind brought down a dead tree near the shelter.

As the tree fell, it hit and instantly killed my friend Jason. 

It was an unexpected and radically life-changing moment. I think about Jason every day. 

But this singular experience hasn’t kept me from loving the outdoors. No way. Our friends, my family and Jason’s family wouldn’t want it that way. He is in nature now. That sun, rain, snow or sleet on my face—that wind in my hair—is my friend.

I cherish every moment of this life that I still have, indoors and out—but outdoors maybe even a little more. I listen to the birds sing and appreciate it. I listen to children laugh and appreciate it. I even listen to the wind blow through the trees and appreciate it. 

And I try to be as kind and friendly as I can—you never know who most needs that kindness. If you come across me on any trail, you are going to get “Hello! How are you? Have a good day!” Without even knowing it, you, too, are now my friend.

I’m often asked what I’m going to do next. My answer? Whatever it is, it will be outside. Like others who have come before me and some who will come after, the outdoors have broken me. But they’ve healed me, too.

Mike Sparks is an outdoor enthusiast who lives in Philadelphia.

Recipe: A Summer Salute to Celery

An unsung workhorse of the kitchen gets its close-up

by Brian Ricci

Celery is often overlooked in favor of more extroverted vegetables. (I’m looking at you, candy-striped beets!) We tend to associate celery with a crunchy, bland flavor, whose greatest purpose may be to act as a vehicle for peanut butter and raisins. No more. Local celery from growers such as Two Gander Farm have been growing celery for its intense flavor. Look for it in your local markets and give it the close-up that it so richly deserves.

Roasted Celery with Tarator
Serves: 2 to 4 as a shared appetizer


  • 3½ ounce baguette, crust removed
  • 3½ ounces whole milk
  • 5½ ounces blanched almonds
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 3 ounces extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 ounce lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Soak your bread in the milk for 30 minutes.
  2. Purée the bread/milk mixture with the almonds and garlic.
  3. Add the olive oil and lemon juice.
  4. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. You can also loosen the consistency with water.
  5. Chill your tarator once you have finished it.


  • 6 stalks celery
  • 5 ounces extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 bunch Italian parsley, washed and roughly chopped
  • Flaky sea salt and black pepper to taste


  1. Set your oven to 400 F.
  2. Wash your celery and cut it on an angle (bias) about 1½  inches long.
  3. Toss with sea salt, black pepper and olive oil.
  4. Place onto a baking tray and into the oven. You want them to caramelize slightly but retain a bit of firmness and texture. About 8 to 10 minutes should suffice.
  5. When they come out, toss them with the tarator sauce or place them in a serving bowl and drizzle tarator over, then top with chopped parsley and serve immediately.

Recipe: Try a no-cook tomato sauce straight from your own harvest

The Nightshade Parade is Here

by Anna Herman

Backyard and farm-stand tomatoes are finally here. Local farmers—and we backyard gardeners—choose varieties to grow based on flavor rather than ability to transport. We also grow varying sizes, shapes and colors with unusual provenances. With names like “mortgage lifter,” “little fairy,” “sweet 100” or “green zebra,” the stories behind the crop are often as interesting as the taste. These vine-ripened globes grown locally can be picked at peak flavor and texture—and should never be refrigerated. Little orange sungolds to eat out of hand, multicolored orbs for simple salad, a nice firm slicer for sandwiches. 

A good tomato needs only a bit of flakey Maldon salt to yield its juices and fragrant flesh. Come late August, we can put up quarts of well-cooked plum-style tomatoes into sauce for winter meals—but early summer tomatoes need no cooking to bring out their best. A bit of basil and garlic is never wrong. (Nor bread, nor pasta!)

My favorite make-quick tomato dish—with many variations on a theme—is no-cook tomato sauce tossed with warm noodles or toasted bread.

Enjoy it at the table with a glass of rosé, or while sitting on a blanket under a tree in the park. Or, just forget the pasta and eat the perfectly seasoned chopped tomatoes out of a bowl with a spoon!

No-Cook Tomato Sauce
5-6 medium tomatoes will yield approximately 2 cups of sauce

  1. Core and coarsely chop tomatoes, reserving all juice. Add some sea salt, lots of black pepper and at least one clove of crushed garlic.  
  2. Add some finely chopped fresh basil or mint and toss with a generous glug of fruity olive oil. Let sit for 15 minutes to 1 hour for the juices to release and mingle with the herbs and spices. Taste for a balance of flavors and adjust as needed.
  3. Approximately 2 generous cups of this flavorful sauce will nicely coat a pound of al dente linguine, fettuccine or bow ties, so toss away. 


  • A healthy sprinkling of grated Parmesan or tender, soft, fresh mozzarella would make this dish a little heartier.
  • A few blanched green beans, and/or some toasted pine or walnuts will turn this from a side dish into a one-dish meal. 
  • This fresh tomato sauce is equally good tossed with toasted cubed bread, chopped cucumber and minced red onion. 

Gold Rings Tortillas is making handmade, Pa.-sourced corn tortillas in Philly

Photo by Billy McGinnis

Photo by Billy McGinnis

Reaching for the Ring

by Emily Kovach

Jam and Ashley Murray are avid home cooks who love to make things from scratch. They moved to Philly from Doylestown last year, and started realizing that they missed the handmade corn tortillas they “were really in love with,” as Jam says, that they’d been able to buy in their old-old neighborhood in Brooklyn. After searching for something comparable in Fishtown, where they reside, the couple began to make tortillas themselves. 

They started small, making batches of 70 tortillas at a time from their home kitchen, based off of classic Mexican recipes. Now, they make closer to 300 per batch. They source non-GMO yellow whole dried dent corn from Castle Valley Mill in Doylestown. The corn itself comes from Meadowbrook Farm, also in Bucks County. Jam says he would classify their tortilla style as “definitively Pennsylvanian.” 

“While I’ve spent hours and hours honing my craft, I am neither a tortilla master nor do I come from a Mexican heritage,” he notes. “Rather, I’m a very meticulous taco fiend who is zealous about food origins and sourcing... so, I think ‘Pennsylvania-style tortillas’ fits the bill.”

For now, slinging tortillas is just a side gig for Jam and Ashley. Jam works as a manager at Riverwards Produce in Fishtown (currently the only retail outlet where Gold Rings Tortillas are available for sale) and Ashley is a web developer. However, Jam reports that the young company will soon be scaling up its operation, with hopes to expand distribution to more markets and grocers across Philadelphia.

Three Philly bakeries making cool moves

Photo by Eric Stanchak

Photo by Eric Stanchak

On the Rise

by Emily Kovach

Essen Bakery

Since the spring of 2016, residents of South Philly have enjoyed the many sweets, treats and baked goods created by Chef Tova du Plessis at her “little Jewish bakery.” At Essen Bakery on Passyunk Avenue and Dickinson Street, signature loaves of fluffy challah bread, sticky-sweet chocolate halva babka and flaky pastries, as well as simple sandwiches and toasts, have become an indispensable part of the thriving food scene in the Passyunk Square neighborhood. As one customer enthuses on Yelp, “The fact that I can walk 20 seconds to get to Essen helps me get out of bed in the morning.”

Locals aren’t the only ones who’ve taken note of du Plessis’ way with butter and dough. Earlier this year, she was nominated for the 2017 Outstanding Baker Award by the James Beard Foundation. Though she didn’t win the award (she did make it to the semifinalist round), the nod was still a huge recognition of Essen’s quality and creativity, and counts as one more feather in Philadelphia’s cap as a rising food city in America.

Pizza Gutt

Daniel Gutter, aka @Pizza_Gutt, runs “Instagram’s first pizza shop.” Confused? Here’s how it works: Every few weeks, Gutter posts a menu for an upcoming pop-up appearance at a friend’s café or restaurant—say Win/Win Coffee Bar or Martha—to sell a limited number of his signature, nostalgia-laden pan pizzas. Philadelphians can lay claim to one of these 10-inch square pies by following a link in his profile to a time-slot reservation website. On the day of the pop-up, they pick up their pizza at the specified location, perhaps a simple tomato pie with greens and roasted garlic vinaigrette, or maybe the decadent Uncle Gutt topped with mozzarella, sauce, pepperoni and fried onions.

Gutter began making pizza at age 14 in a mom-and-pop shop. After graduating from college in 2012, he started working at Kensington's beloved Pizza Brain. In the summer of 2016, Gutter was making pizzas in his parents’ new backyard wood-fired oven and posting photos of the finished pies on Instagram. “I sold a few as a quasijoke, but the next week I had more people asking!” Gutter says. “Soon, the weather got chilly and I couldn’t cook outside anymore, but I was kind of obsessed with IG followers and didn’t want to stop!” That’s when he decided to pursue the square pie format, because they can be made in any oven. “I like to cook all styles of pizza,” he notes, “but right now people really seem to like the fried cheese and spongy dough of these squares.” Gutter is taking off the month of July to go on a solo tour of some national parks, but he’ll be back in August! Just keep an eye on the ’gram.

Philly Bread

If you’ve ever had a pillowy and perfectly chewy Philly muffin from Philly Bread, you’ve already experienced the results of founder Pete Merzbacher and his team’s exceptional sourcing and dedication to their craft. Their grains come directly from farmers and they coax the most flavor possible out of them with methods like fresh milling and the addition of ingredients such as mild sourdough and roasted barley. From its headquarters in Olney, Philly Bread produces those lovely muffins, as well as bagels, baguettes, burger buns, Pullman loaves and a line of heritage breads.

Though it’s not hard to find Philly Bread products on local grocers’ shelves, aspiring home bakers can also sign up for “breaducation” classes to absorb some professional wisdom. Some of the classes coming up in August (and later in the fall) include a sourdough class, where participants will learn the steps to develop their own sourdough starter; a homemaker workshop covering some of the most common missteps in home-baking adventures; a home-baking equipment class that will explore how to use common kitchen items to bake bread; and a milling 101 session that will uncover the magic of using a hand-cranked mill. They’ll also do a masterclass for intermediate bakers; students are encouraged to bring their own bread project. Find class dates at phillybread.com in late July.

A new wholesale boulangerie makes French-inspired pastries

Photo by StevieChris Photography

Photo by StevieChris Photography

A Well-Buttered Machine

by Emily Kovach

It’s a sunny Friday morning in South Philadelphia, and the wide ground floor of the hulking Bok Building, formerly Edward W. Bok Technical High School, is eerily quiet. A ride in the creaky elevator to the fourth floor reveals a different scene: Though many of the large rental spaces on this level are vacant, there is a chatty group of folks congregating in the corner. 

Gathered around a charming display of pastries, breads and a large yellow Igloo beverage dispenser labeled “Energy Drank” (cold-brewed Elixr coffee), they use the honor system, leaving cash and helping themselves to goodies such as “everything” seed knots stuffed with goat cream cheese and gooey cookies studded with hunks of chocolate. It’s one of Machine Shop Boulangerie’s pop-up bake sales, luring the other tenants of Bok with the wafting smells of fresh-baked deliciousness.

Machine Shop is a new wholesale bakery owned and operated by Emily Riddell and Katie Lynch, two industry pros in their early 30s who met through a mutual friend while both working as bakers for local culinary legend Georges Perrier. The duo had been scheming individually for years on how to break away from working for other restaurants and bakeries—and strike out on their own.

Lynch says the decision to become small-business owners came over time.

“I worked for a lot of people, opening a lot of places… Sometimes you can’t help but think, ‘If I’m going to work this hard, I’m going to do it for myself.’” Since meeting in 2011, she and Riddell had developed a mutual respect for each other and decided to partner up last year. Riddell was contemplating a move back to her home state of California, but she first called Lynch in February 2016 to discuss the idea of starting a bakery together. 

“We went to Chinatown and ate some noodles, drank some beers, hashed some things out, and by the end of the meal we cheersed to opening a new bakery!” Riddell remembers.

They signed a lease at the Bok Building in January, loving the open, airy room that’s now their home, as well as the communal nature of the building. Their fellow fourth-floor neighbors include photographer Stevie Chris, who took a series of “pastry portraits” for them, and across the hall is woodworker and furniture maker Brian Christopher, who created a beautiful Machine Shop pastry display box. 

“Every time we think about what we need, there’s someone here who can do it!” Riddell says.

After the build-out, they stocked the space with used equipment and their personal collections of baking tools, and after licensing and inspection in mid-April, they sent their first order out to Elixr Coffee Roasters on May 8. Their other current wholesale customers include both locations of ReAnimator Coffee, Menagerie Coffee, Res Ipsa and Alchemy in Northern Liberties.

They chose to pursue a wholesale model primarily to avoid having to raise as much startup capital as they would have needed for a retail space, and to be able to have unrelenting daily oversight of the operation, a feat that is much harder to accomplish in a retail setting. To maintain that level of control, they’re committed to starting small and slow. 

Lynch brings bread experience to the table, while Riddell is trained in pastry. Together, they name quality as their No. 1 focus. “We like things made well,” Lynch says. “We’re French-inspired, but we use Pennsylvania or East Coast grains, and [use] organic products when we can.” Seasonal produce is a source of inspiration as well—savory danishes and strawberry pastries on their bake-sale table are made with items from their CSA. “I’m from Philly,” Riddell says, “and I’m not going to use pineapples. I want to make things that are unique to this place as possible.”

Stay strong for the walk down the aisle

Photo by Jeffrey Holder

Photo by Jeffrey Holder

Fit to be Tied

by Emily Kovach

Your wedding day is an occasion where you’ll see people from all different facets of your life. For maximum confidence and comfort, feeling good—in heart, body and mind—is paramount. For many of us, feeling good is inextricably linked to looking good, and while we’re not advocating any kind of drastic body “makeovers,” if there ever was a time to focus on your fitness and wellness regimen, the few months leading up to a wedding might be it. After all, feeling good isn’t about the number on the scale; it’s about standing tall and proud, feeling strong and self-assured. Local gyms and fitness centers offer different packages designed to help the wedding-bound create realistic goals and see them through. Paired with a clean, mindful diet, these programs can help you feel your best, banish stress about fitting into the dress or suit on the big day, and empower you to rock the thousands of photos you’ll be posing for at your wedding.

Sweat Fitness

This small chain of local fitness centers offers programs called “Sweat for the Dress” and “Tighten for the Tux,” which are two-month packages of 24, 30-minute, personal training sessions. These are not one-size-fits-all sessions; trainers work with each client’s specific needs and goals to achieve the desired results. You pay the same whether you’re an existing member or not, and all eight Sweat locations run this special throughout the year.


If you want your workout to do double duty, Ploome should be your go-to. Every class at Ploome helps support REQ.1, a sister nonprofit that “empowers victims of violence to transcend trauma and heal through movement and art,” something that’s intensely personal for founder Christina M. Stolz, an assault survivor. Her community-driven fitness boutique specializes in pilates, though the class schedule at the Northern Liberties-based studio ranges from stability-ball core work to high-intensity interval training to a session called “Rage Against the Machine.” It offers a monthly, unlimited class membership that doesn’t require a contract, so you can hit it hard for just a few months before your wedding day.

Bones Fitness

If going to a typical gym just isn’t for you but fitness is where you want to spend your wedding dough, a personal trainer might be a better call. Bones Fitness in Rittenhouse is a membership-free personal training gym that pairs a certified fitness trainer to your exact goals and needs. Due to popular demand, Bones has developed a special wedding-prep regimen: “Final Fitting Fitness.” This five-week intensive program includes one evaluation and goal-setting session, five weeks of hourlong, one-on-one training sessions, and nutritional guidance and exercise homework.

The best bites for your big day

Photo by Brittney Raine Photography

Photo by Brittney Raine Photography

Follow the Food

by Emily Kovach

Of all the things worth splurging on at your wedding, put food at the top of the list. Whether you want a casual family or buffet-style dinner, a more formal service or a refreshingly unconventional setup—maybe a favorite food truck?—every guest at your wedding will expect something to nibble and sip. It once was standard for wedding venues to offer only one approved caterer, and couples were stuck with whatever style of fare that company provided. Thankfully, that’s changing, as venues realize how important customization and personalization is to modern couples. Our city’s vibrant dining scene offers a bevy of fantastic options, no matter your taste, diet or budget.

Tried and True:
Birchtree Catering

You simply can’t go wrong with the local, beautiful, delicious food from Birchtree Catering. For nearly 10 years, this woman-owned company has been knocking wedding and party food out of the park and has received a ton of recognition for its work both from wedding resources such as The Knot and review-based sites such as Yelp. From their kitchen in the Globe Dye Works, the team sources from farms and local markets, working with the best of each season’s offerings, and they compost and recycle waste in their facility, as well as at events. Call Birchtree, and you can call it a (delicious) day.

Vegan Vittles:
Miss Rachel’s Pantry

Soggy vegetable napoleons are so 10 years ago. These days, vegan and vegetarian couples expect and deserve the same level of creative, tasty and crowd-pleasing (because you know some guests will be skeptical) options that their omnivorous counterparts enjoy at their receptions. Rachel Klein and her team at Miss Rachel’s Pantry have vegan wedding fare down to a very delicious science, including snappy little hors d’oeuvres (try the hearts of palm mini crab cakes) and hearty, savory entrées, including roasted black garlic seitan with fresh herbs.

For the Budget DIY Set:
Local 215 Food Truck

Thanks to the easy mobility of food trucks, no longer are remote or kitchenless venues off-limits for couples who want to host their reception in the same place as their ceremony. The Local 215 food truck is an especially great option for this purpose, as the four-wheeled wonder is actually outfitted with a fully equipped kitchen inside it. (Many trucks prepare the food in a commissary kitchen and simply reheat and plate in the truck.) Bonus: The food is made from ingredients sourced from small, local farms.

Taking the worry out of an outside affair

Photo by Alison Dunn

Photo by Alison Dunn

Spin the Weather Vane

by Emily Kovach

We’ve all seen the photos on social media: the couple standing atop a grassy hill, backlit with golden-hour sunlight, slightly windswept and flush with love. To be sure, an outdoor wedding can be a romantic scene... if everything goes exactly according to plan. The trouble is that rain, excessive heat, strong wind—and even mosquitoes—can put a serious damper on an alfresco wedding. Then, there’s the question of restrooms (do you really want to spend money on a porta-potty?), accommodations for older guests, and so on and so forth, until the idea of a boring hotel or a good old-fashioned fire hall doesn’t sound so bad. Before you throw in the towel on dreams of an outdoor wedding, check out these three venues that split the difference on the indoor/outdoor debate. Each of them is also steeped in Philadelphia history, and will make for some gorgeous and iconic photos.

The Open Air Ceremony:
Awbury Arboretum

Tucked away in charming Germantown, Awbury Arboretum is home to 55 acres of meadows, wetlands and, of course, thousands of mature trees, including river oaks, sycamores and sugar maples. Every season here promises a stunning backdrop, whether that’s the cherry blossoms of spring, the abundant green of summer or the burnished leaves of fall. The historic Cope House on the property can accommodate up to 60 guests for an indoor wedding, and outdoor events may still make use of the home’s gracious porch, kitchen, bathrooms and lawn.

Trees and Stars Under the Greenhouse Roof:
Fairmount Park Horticulture Center

In a corner of Fairmount Park so verdant it’s hard to believe you’re still in city limits, the Horticulture Center is a seriously in-demand wedding venue in Philly. The space seamlessly blends the in- and outdoors, assuring that whatever the weather, guests will enjoy dinner and dancing surrounded by lush greenery and twinkly lights. The main indoor event space is in the center’s airy greenhouse, constructed almost fully of glass, letting in that glowy natural light even if it’s rainy. If the weather is fine, aspects of the event can be held outdoors, and guests are free to explore the surrounding gardens, fountains and fields.

An Outdoor Feel in Center City:
Colonial Dames Society

In 1891, a group of Philadelphia women founded the Colonial Dames Society of America in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to honor the colonial history of the country. Though their beautiful headquarters at 16th and Latimer streets in Rittenhouse Square is no longer used for meetings, the incredibly preserved (but still air-conditioned!) home can fit up to 120 guests in its period-correct upstairs ballroom. During cocktail hour or reception reveling, guests can also enjoy the highlight of the house: the sprawling outdoor gardens, designed in the 1920s by Marian Coffin, one of the first female landscape architects.

Flower Frenzy

Photo by Emily Wren Photography

Photo by Emily Wren Photography

Upping the beauty quotient for your big day

by Emily Kovach

Besides food, there is one other wedding detail that is practically universal, making an appearance at even the most low-key backyard weddings or far-flung-destination nuptials: flowers. Whether in the form of bouquets, garlands, boutonnières, scattered petals or table arrangements, the colors, aromas and shapes of flowers signify romance and abundance. This wedding tradition may have some murky roots (to mask the smell of the couple in predeodorant days, for example), but these days, flowers are a lovely way to spiff up the scene and wink at fertility. There are countless florists around town, but what separates the good ones from the great? We think an excellent place to start is with florists who prioritize sustainable practices, as the flower industry is generally rife with problems, ranging from rampant pesticide use to child labor. Luckily, there are plenty of responsible, eco-minded florists to help you choose the perfect wedding blooms.

Vault + Vine (Falls Flowers)

This East Falls flower shop (formerly Falls Flowers) is currently rebranding, changing its name to Vault + Vine, as well as moving from its old location on Conrad Street to an upgraded space at 3507 Midvale Ave., which will include a florist, café, greenhouse and locally focused gift shop, all under one lovely roof. From the start, owner Peicha Chang has made sustainability a focus that goes way beyond the flowers, all of which are locally sourced or organically certified. Nearly everything from ribbons to waxed paper is recycled or composted, and the company bears the honor of being a certified B Corporation.

Wild Stems

Based in Fishtown, this husband-and-wife-owned florist is completely events-based. Designer Amy Bruck scours the area, building relationships with local farmers and nurseries, in search of the most stunning flowers and plants she can find. Vale Bruck brings a different set of skills to the table—formerly a large-scale art-installation technician, he helps clients dream up dramatic ways to use flowers in their event spaces that go way beyond traditional bouquets or table arrangements.

Love’n Fresh Flowers

From an unbelievable urban flower farm in Roxborough, Jennie Love of Love’n Fresh Flowers grows nearly all of the blooms for her wedding clients. Sticking to the offerings of each season, Love’n Fresh’s floral services are guided by its design philosophy, which includes a devotion to locally grown flowers, an avoidance of the fussy and stuffy, and the belief that “flowers are living poetry.” Wedding options range from prix fixe packages, where couples trust Love’n Fresh to choose the specific colors and flowers in their floral décor, to à la carte and bulk botanicals, as well as full-service packages.

Find the right threads to say 'I Do'

Photo by Jamele Ransom

Photo by Jamele Ransom

Clothing Conundrum

by Emily Kovach

If the thought of walking into a David’s Bridal makes you want to break out in hives, fear not. There are so many other ways to seek out the article of clothing that feels just right for your wedding day. If that is a more traditional white dress or black tux, consider shopping for a vintage or gently used version, which comes at a serious discount to you and is a bit kinder to the planet. And if a white dress or black tux is the furthest thing from what you want to step out in on your wedding day, or you’re seeking that one special detail or accessory, Philadelphia has no shortage of vintage shops and boutiques, which carry a rotating stock of incredible clothes and are staffed by enthusiastic and patient clerks who want to help you find exactly what you’re looking for.

Janice Martin Couture

Yes, wedding gowns and suits off the rack can be tailored and tweaked, but nothing will ever fit like a custom piece of clothing. Located in Ardmore, Janice Martin Couture brings over 25 years of experience to wedding couples who desire truly unique clothing for their wedding day. Natural fibers can be used for “green” gowns, and other custom-designed fabrics, often with hand-finished details such as beading and painted designs, are sourced from small ateliers. Found an amazing vintage gown that needs some restoration? Janice Martin also specializes in restoring and reinventing heirloom gowns, so if you’re planning to repurpose a relative’s dress, Martin will make it work.

Ayasa Afi

A graduate of Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts who comes from a line of seamstresses, Philly native Ayasa Afi designs gorgeous, high-end wedding gowns that are anything but standard issue. Lace, clean lines and luxe fabrics can be found in all of Afi’s ultra-modern bridal silhouettes. If a white gown isn’t your thing, her other collections offer chic, creative options for the fashion-forward set who want to make a statement.  

Cultured Couture

If finely curated vintage menswear is what you’re after, stop at this unassuming storefront on 7th and Girard for a chat with owner Erik Honesty. Racks of dapper vestments await the intrepid shopper who firmly believes “they don’t make them like they used to.” The accessories game here is strong as well, with ties and tie clips, belts, pocket squares and shoes from coveted designers such as Hermés, Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton.

Get ‘out there’ and support stores that give back

Photo by John Todd Kane for Honeygrow

Photo by John Todd Kane for Honeygrow

Camping Supply That Cares

by Grid Staff

Hidden River Outfitters

This family owned Philadelphia outdoor company in Center City is for those of you who like your camping wet—as in, the middle of the river wet. Multiday and weekly kayak rentals are available if you know you’re heading to a site where you’ll be able to paddle, but aren’t ready to commit to your own gear. (We know you’ve already got your bike hung up in the living room, so it’s understandable that there isn’t room for a boat.) In addition to renting kayaks for your camping trip, you can also take one of their kayak tours to get a look at the city from a different perspective: The company is committed to connecting Philadelphia to its waterways and getting people outside, no matter their experience level.

Out There Outfitters

The whole family will find camping supplies and clothing at this Wayne, Pennsylvania, store whose motto is, “If you’re going out there, get in here!” Since 2008, it’s been outfitting people for casual camping and more serious treks. If you have gently used equipment that you no longer need, the store keeps a recycle bin so that it can be redistributed to folks who need a little help getting their gear together, and Out There Outfitters regularly partners with national and local environmental organizations. The company has helped plant 150 trees at the Riverbend Environmental Education Center and raised funds for local land trusts, and it supports many local scholastic fundraisers. 

Trail Creek Outfitters

In addition to being a one-stop for getting you geared up for your big outing, Trail Creek Outfitters in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, prides itself on building community. This year, it celebrated 10 years of partnering with the Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County on the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, and it works to obtain grant money from big national brands to help support local conservation causes. The company also organizes five trail runs yearly that raise money for environmental advocacy. That’s all in addition to the money it donates to causes ranging from animal rights to empowering disabled individuals who want to get outdoors to supporting at-risk youth.

Three spots to relax in the woods (and get a dash of history, too)

Photo by Brent Erb

Photo by Brent Erb

Gone Camping

by Lauren Johnson

As summer sets in, ditch the hot pavement and check out these three camping destinations to slow down and reconnect with nature. Though each is just an hour away, you’ll feel as if you’re miles from city stress.

For the Kids:
Allaire State Park
4265 Atlantic Ave., Wall Township, N.J.

Pack up the family for a wilderness adventure with a historic twist. This park features several campsite options and multiuse trails accessible from the main parking area, as well as an additional 800 acres at the southern end of the park to roam and explore. 

After journeying through the wilderness, cool off in the Manasquan River, which flows through the park and provides ample opportunities for splashing, swimming and canoeing. The park also includes historic Allaire Village, a once-thriving 19th-century community that produced pig and cast iron; it’s since been preserved to function as a living history museum. Families can experience a working blacksmith shop, a general store where you can purchase old-fashioned candy and handmade souvenirs, and a bakery to sample fresh, homemade treats. Folks in period costumes roam the grounds and gladly chat about what life was like during that time. There is also an antique steam train that loops around the park, further helping you take it all in.

For the Grown-Ups:
French Creek State Park
843 Park Road, Elverson, Pa.

For the more serious outdoor enthusiast, French Creek State Park has it all. The property is part of America’s industrial history, as it was once the site of Hopewell Furnace, an iron manufacturer in the late 1700s that used the local timber to produce coal to fuel its facility. The federal government claimed the property in the 1930s as part of a national effort to create “recreation demonstration areas,” and it remains a protected historic site today. 

The 7,730-acre park has much to offer, including a cornucopia of forests, fields and lakes that are home to some rare animals and plants. Be sure to bring your binoculars, as the park has been designated by the National Audubon Society as an “important bird area” and “important mammal area,” and it serves as a vital stop for migrating species. Don’t forget to call ahead for reservations!

There are more than 35 miles of trails, all of which are marked with trail blazes indicating their varying degrees of difficulty. Campers can either choose to stay in one of the park’s 200 wooded campsites or spend the night in their choice of cottage, cabin or yurt. Ten miles away, you can visit Daniel Boone’s homestead, owned by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

For Everyone:
Wharton State Forest
31 Batsto Road, Hammonton, N.J.

Situated in the heart of New Jersey’s Pinelands National Reserve, Wharton State Forest, at 120,000 acres, is the largest continuous land tract within the New Jersey park system. The state forest includes a major section of the 50-mile-long Batona Trail. Aside from ample hiking and scenic vistas, visitors can enjoy the waterfront of their choice, including the Batsto, Mullica, Wading and Oswego rivers, or enjoy picnicking at the Atsion Lake recreation area. Campers can choose from nine campsites or rent a rustic cabin. 

For a change of scenery, visitors can make their way to Batsto Village, a nationally recognized historic site that was once a major iron-mining town in the late 1700s inhabited by workers and their families. The village sits within the park’s property and includes restored original structures, such as the 19th-century ore boat, charcoal kiln, icehouse, blacksmith, gristmill and general store, all of which help take you back in time.

Switching to renewables isn’t enough to save us. We must slow down—and change our values.

Illustration by Abayomi Louard-Moore

Illustration by Abayomi Louard-Moore

The Keys to the Future

by Jerry Silberman

Editor’s note: This is Part Four of a series that concludes this month.

In the last three columns we have outlined the dynamics of energy use in our society. We know that the release of huge quantities of solar energy stored in carbon compounds (what we usually refer to as fossil fuels) in a very short time (geologically speaking) has overwhelmed the global ecosystem’s ability to neutralize the effects. It’s triggering a spiral of global warming, and we do not yet know the extent of the consequences.

But we do know some of them. Ice shelves are melting and seas are rising. Temperatures are rising and global weather patterns are changing. Human health is deteriorating as water and air become contaminated. And we are entering into a period of accelerated extinction events that will itself have unforeseen and possibly dire consequences for our own species.

This should be enough for us to jettison our reliance on the finite resources of fossilized fuels, even before the increased cost of exploiting them shuts the mines and wells down for good. But we carry on.

The population and technology explosion of the past three centuries was enabled by the fossil fuel bonus. We had plenty of warnings over the most recent century that we should develop the knowledge and technology to preserve some of these gains after fossil fuels are no longer available. Yet we have, as a society, taken precious few steps in that direction. 

We choose to ignore that renewable technologies that have begun to be competitive in the last few years, including solar and wind, rely significantly on the fossil fuel bonus. Many of us also choose to believe the current high-tech lifestyles of countries such as the U.S., France, Germany, Japan and the like are sustainable—and can be extended to the rest of the planet—if we only convert to these “renewable” electricity sources, employ some basic conservation and efficiency techniques and make a few other minor changes and adjustments. 

This appeal is also intended to allay the concerns about inequity, largely on behalf of those enjoying the privileges of the fossil-fuel-era bonus. There is only one problem: It’s completely impossible in the real world. It ignores the critical principle of return on energy invested, which tells us that we are working at an energy deficit.

Aside from the math that we’re ignoring, it’s interesting to note that the fossil fuel bonus has not made humanity any happier. Significant evidence shows that people are much less happy than before the fossil fuel subsidy sped up our lives and disconnected us from both the work that actually enables us to live and the people who should be our support community. 

I believe that if we can dial back the addiction to fossil-fueled speed, we would be much happier, and probably healthier. 

But here we are, embedded in a system designed for and valuing above all else perpetual growth, profit and consumption. These values became dominant only very recently in human history and are best exemplified by the industry literally driving the U.S. economy for nearly a century—the automobile.

There is little in our poisoned air, fractured communities, delusions of individual power and control, and incredibly wasteful land use patterns that is not connected with these machines. Yet our visions of the future rarely question their continued presence, or our entitlement to instant, extensive, machine-powered mobility. 

We rarely see any analysis of the extent of the negative impact of the automobile on our society as a whole. Nor do most people realize that 100 years into the automobile age we spend more money, more time and more resources getting to work and traveling to accomplish basic life tasks than at any time in history.

How do we revamp the value structure of a whole society? An intellectual understanding of the problem will not change behavior. Only building real alternatives can do that, and that requires collective power, united communities insisting that resources be redirected to provide alternatives. Taking serious steps to limit automobiles in the city so that fast, frequent, affordable public transit could meet the needs of those who can’t rely on their feet and bicycles is one example of building an alternative.  

Declaring that agriculture is the highest and best use of land, protecting existing urban gardens and farms and promoting more in currently unused spaces (including large tracts in many of our parks) is another.  

Taxing energy and resource use progressively (or adjusting the rate structure in the case of our municipal gas works and water department) beyond an established per capita standard for individuals and businesses—an incentive that always works—is another part of it. 

There is no technological silver bullet. There will be changes, and we need to think big. The real solutions are neither practical nor realistic within the value frame of those who hold power in society today. It’s time to start looking for our keys where we lost them, not under the (temporary) circle of bright light provided by the fossil fuel bonus of our very recent history.

Jerry Silberman is a retired union organizer who now devotes his time to negotiating a resilient future for all of us.  

Standing up for Philly’s environmental rights in the age of Trump

Illustration by Kailey Whitman

Illustration by Kailey Whitman

Our Moment is Now

by Larry Krasner

When people think about a “district attorney” they often think of someone who prosecutes crimes against people and property, and hopefully of someone who protects the rights of crime survivors and the accused alike. I also believe, as a candidate for district attorney, that it should be the DA’s job to use the law to treat substance abuse and mental illness as a public health crisis rather than a crime, and to punish illegal business practices. In addition—and this may be something you haven’t heard from a local DA candidate before—I believe it’s also critical to use the office to protect our environment.

All of these issues are interconnected, much like an ecosystem. When we fail to seek justice in one, the rest suffer. This is why prosecutors must approach equal justice in a holistic manner. If elected, I plan to protect the environment and pursue environmental justice for the people of Philadelphia—especially for our children. 

Children in Philadelphia, especially those children living in poverty, suffer from environmentally based and preventable diseases such as asthma, caused by exposure to lead in paint and in water and the harmful effects of polluted soil and groundwater. 

In 2015 alone, 2,700 children here tested positive for harmful levels of lead. We suffer from lead exposure at twice the national average, according to a groundbreaking Philadelphia Inquirer report last year. Symptoms often include lower than average IQs and pronounced learning and behavioral difficulties. These setbacks are nothing short of shameful, particularly while our city struggles to adequately address dangerously underfunded public education systems.

Childhood asthma continues to plague our city, too. A 2016 Clean Air Task Force study estimated that thousands of children suffer from persistent asthmatic episodes due in no small part to ground-level smog created by gas and oil companies. The report concluded that this pollution over the years has created “500,000 days of school missed, nearly 2,000 asthma-related emergency room visits, over 600 respiratory-related hospital admissions, and over 1.5 million restricted activity days.”

Illegal dumping of toxic materials by firms and their failure to remediate polluted sites are persistent problems throughout the city as well. The activities of these companies often contaminate our soil and water supply while proper cleanups are frequently left to the taxpayers.

Philadelphians know that there are certain outlying areas of the city still used for industrial purposes. But many fewer know that some of these toxic sites are right in the middle of more centrally located and heavily populated neighborhoods. Residents deserve to have this vital information regarding many of these sites at their disposal. I suspect you would agree that transparency is the keystone to trust between the public and their elected officials. 

When companies are found to be poisoning neighborhoods—no matter where they are—we must not only give the public good information, but also aggressively prosecute them and hold them accountable. It’s time to move past giving polluters a “slap on the wrist.” 

These injustices disproportionately impact our poorest communities and people of color, and feed the vicious cycle of inequity, poverty and lack of opportunity that ultimately impacts the safety of all. New programs such as Solarize Philly may be able to provide jobs for communities and reduce pollution. Others, such as Rebuild and Philadelphia Water’s green stormwater infrastructure initiative, Green City, Clean Waters, will also create employment while improving our city’s infrastructure and public spaces. Restored parks and recreation centers can have a positive impact on the safety of communities. Ultimately, we can and must work to hold polluters accountable while restoring our communities for future generations. 

The Trump administration’s assault on the environment—including the unconscionable decision to gut the Environmental Protection Agency and, most recently, to withdraw our country from the Paris Climate Accord—makes it absolutely vital that municipalities fill this lack of enforcement and challenge the administration’s wanton disregard for clean air, water and soil, all of which are fundamental human rights. 

These erosions of federal protections make all Philadelphians more vulnerable to environmental crimes and must be addressed through local solutions and enforcement. There are, in fact, tools that previous administrations in Philadelphia have had at their disposal to hold both large and small companies accountable, but have not used them. As a local prosecutor, I can—and will—utilize the Solid Waste Management Act, the Clean Streams Law and the Air Pollution Control Act to ensure that our environment is safe and that repeat offenders especially are subject to aggressive prosecution. These tools, when used appropriately, can begin to restore environmental justice to communities most impacted by malfeasance.

I recognize that crimes against the environment not only threaten public health, but violate our civil rights, too. I look forward to building coalitions with community advocates and other local and state partners, such as Pennsylvania’s attorney general, to fearlessly tackle these urgent challenges.

Larry Krasner is a veteran criminal defense and civil rights attorney. In May he was
elected as the Democratic candidate for Philadelphia district attorney.

July: Comings & Goings

Councilman Squilla Delays Controversial Zoning Bill
Councilman Mark Squilla, 1st District, announced June 12 that he would delay consideration of a bill he introduced regarding the Central Delaware Zoning Overlay. Urbanist PAC 5th Square’s petition to withdraw the bill garnered over 500 signatures after it was announced that the bill would increase the maximum allowed building height along the Delaware River Waterfront. It could also create a new height bonus for making “through connections” to the waterfront via quasi-public driveways and other passages run through private developments.

Fossil Fuel Industry Continues to Influence State Assembly
Legislation that would reduce protections to streams under which coal companies seek to mine passed in the state Senate 32-17 on June 6.

Senate Bill 624, introduced by Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, would directly affect a pending case before the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board relating to Consol Energy’s longwall mining activity in and near Greene County’s Ryerson Station State Park.

Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware/Montgomery, said Scarnati introduced S.B. 624 on April 13, two weeks after receiving a $5,000 contribution from Consol.

The Ryerson State Park case was brought three years ago by the Center for Coalfield Justice and Pennsylvania Sierra Club. A hearing was held in August 2016, and a decision from the state Environmental Hearing Board is expected soon.

“Confidence in government erodes when special-interest groups contribute to elected officials who in turn advance legislation favorable to those contributors,” Vitali said.

The bill is now with the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, and Vitali said he urges Gov. Tom Wolf to veto S.B. 624 should it reach his desk.

In addition, Vitali’s office announced that the natural gas industry spent $1.4 million lobbying the Pennsylvania General Assembly during the first quarter of this year.

Chesapeake Energy led in lobbying expenditures with $211,602. The latest figures, based on quarterly lobbying reports from 43 gas companies in Pennsylvania, bring the total in natural-gas lobbying spent since 2007 to more than $64 million.  

Pennsylvania is one of 10 states that does not limit gifts from lobbyists, and it is the only major gas-producing state in the country without a severance tax on extracting nonrenewable resources from a jurisdiction. According to the state Department of Revenue, Pennsylvania will lose $153.4 million in fiscal year 2016-17 by not having a severance tax.

State Supreme Court Strikes Blow to Fracking
On June 20, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision and ruled that in allowing the leasing of public land to private natural gas companies for hydraulic fracturing—and not directing profits to conservation efforts—it did not comply with its constitutional duty to Pennsylvanians. According to watchdog group PennFuture, subsequent leasing options would need to be accompanied by “an assessment of the public interest.”

George Jugovic Jr., PennFuture's president of legal affairs, said, “The ruling is monumental for not only public lands, but for the citizens of Pennsylvania. The court has made clear the constitution’s promise to protect the environment will be upheld.”

NextFab Opens Delaware Outfit
Philly-based makerspace NextFab launched its third facility on June 14, a 10,000-square-foot space located in downtown Wilmington, Delaware. Gov. John Carney and Mayor Mike Purzycki spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“Delaware’s economy will be increasingly driven by entrepreneurship and innovation,” said Gov. Carney. “We should invest in innovation, help connect small businesses and entrepreneurs with available resources, and make sure Delawareans have the technical skills necessary to succeed in our new economy.”

NextFab members are able to access equipment, software, training and consultants for personal and professional projects in fields such as engineering, arts, business and science.

The Wilmington location features co-working space, a classroom, wood shop, electronics lab, and digital fabrication tools such as laser cutters, 3-D printers and computer-controlled routing.

Philly a Winner In Knight Cities Challenge
Philadelphia received $338,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Cities Challenge, a grant awarded to 33 cities to improve services to residents.

The award to the city will fund a project titled the PHL Participatory Design Lab, spearheaded by the Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation and the Mayor’s Office of Policy, Legislation and Intergovernmental Affairs. The idea for the lab project was selected from a pool of 4,500 applications and is the largest Knight Cities Challenge award given this year.

The grant will allow the city to hire fellows from the complementary fields of service design and behavioral economics, who will work with residents and city staff.

“Residents need to be part of creating the type of cities where they want to live,” said Patrick Morgan, Knight Foundation program director for Philadelphia. “In this spirit, the PHL Participatory Design Lab will tap into the preferences of the people, advancing greater civic engagement and creating lessons in city-building.”

Public Transportation Advocate Killed by Car
Longtime public transportation advocate Peter Javsicas was killed on June 13 when a car rammed into a sidewalk newsstand outside of Suburban Station. 

He was 76. 

Mayor Kenney, in a statement, said, “Peter devoted his life to improving all forms of transportation for Philadelphia and the region, and so his death from this crash is all the more wrenching to those that know him. My administration, through its Vision Zero initiative, remains committed to preventing all traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries by 2030.”

Soda Tax Upheld
Philadelphia’s sweetened beverage tax was upheld last month by a state appeals court. According to Billy Penn, the American Beverage Association, which brought the lawsuit, plans to appeal all the way to Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

July: To-Do List

Illustration by Anne Lambelet

Illustration by Anne Lambelet

1. It’s time to weed again!
Even if you don’t have a garden plot, you probably have a walkway or patio that could use some attention. Don’t let the grass go to seed, or you’ll never keep up!

2. Listen to some tunes
The XPoNential Music Fest is at the end of the month, July 28 to 30 at the Camden Waterfront. And save the date for the BlackStar Film Festival: It’s Aug. 3 to 6.

3. Pick a perennial
Adding one or two higher-cost perennials to your collection each year means lower annual cost. Consider shopping now for something that will bloom and give you fall color.

4. Take off to the woods
Some of us just aren’t water people, and prefer the cool shade of the woods to a trip down the shore. If you’d rather camp than kayak, we’ve got three places just an hour outside the city where you can find some respite. Some of them also offer access to the water, just in case you’re traveling with someone who just has to get their H2O fix. 

5. Head to the oval
If your kids are ready to expend some energy outside, you’ll all have fun on the Parkway’s Eakins Oval, where 8 acres of green space offer games for kids, with a beer garden to boot. Opens July 20.

6. Keep up with your harvest
It’s a true privilege to have a spot in a community garden (or any place to grow food), especially if you can afford to buy fresh produce. So make a commitment: No tomato left behind! If you find yourself unable to keep up with the food you’ve harvested, surprise your co workers or give a treat to a neighbor. A neglected plot is a sad sight!

7. Find the perfect place for fireworks
No one celebrates the Fourth like Philly. The biggest display will be on the Parkway at 10 p.m. on July Fourth for the Welcome America concert. But Penn’s Landing also offers two viewings, on June 30 and July 1, both at 9:30 p.m.

8. Drain the swamp
Mosquitoes are even more dangerous now that Zika has hit the U.S. Just a bottle cap of water can allow them to breed, so do a quick check on your patio or yard.

9. Get some new veggies in the ground
Gardening isn’t a “one-and-done” proposition. Now that July has rolled around, it’s time to find some room in your plot for kale, carrots, beets and chard.

10. Celebrate in a smaller crowd
If the July Fourth madness isn’t your thing, you can still celebrate independence by joining a Bastille Day celebration. Check out the festivities at Eastern State Penitentiary on July 15, where Marie Antoinette will let you eat (Tasty)cakes thrown to the crowd.

Wonder Woman has been unleashed on the world at a perfect time


I'm With Her

by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

A breezy summer it is not. The mood of our politically bifurcated country continues to be tense and dark. We’re watching the wartime bonds we forged with our European allies fray, and our democracy feels fragile. And now the U.S. has made a cynical show of abandoning the Paris Climate Accord, at exactly the moment that fighting climate change matters most. Can anything save us?  Enter Wonder Woman.

When we first see her in the new movie, our would-be heroine is quietly working in an antiquities office at the Louvre, examining a picture of her past heroism. “I used to want to save the world, this beautiful place,” we hear the voiceover say. “But the closer you get, the more you see the great darkness within.” Is it possible that our heroine has resistance fatigue and has given up the fight? 

A dose of fight and truth telling are exactly what we’re craving now, and in the subsequent scenes on Themyscira, the protected island home of the Amazons, we get a triple treat: principled valor, a peek of what is possible when we live in harmony with our environment and a full-frontal view of the behavior of empowered women. 

We also see the darkness within a commercial blockbuster: the movie fails on multiple counts when it comes to its portrayals of black women (the mammy, the brute, the sage), and it would have been easy to do better. But collectively, the sight of the ferocious minds and spirits of these women on a paradisal, man-free island—all solidly middle-aged specimens of physical and intellectual prowess—blows the incredibly low bar of the Bechdel test out of the clear blue water. 

For me, just remembering what is possible in a messy world is a breath of fresh air, and the movie hints several times at our current environmental predicament.

When Wonder Woman first leaves her beautiful island home, the first place she sees is the British Isles, specifically the port of London, dressed in shadows and soot: The movie is set in the dark heart of the first World War, where chemical weapons leech their way out of a sociopathic doctor’s mind and the ever-strengthening industrial revolution does its best to belch black smoke into the air. 

“Welcome to jolly London!” says her male boatmate, a charming American spy. 

“It’s hideous,” she deadpans, holding in her mind the image of the blue-green utopia she’s just left while she ponders the bleak house she’s about to enter. This is Wonder Woman’s origin story, but it is also ours—a place in time when we were becoming addicted to fossil fuels, playing with chemicals without a sense of consequence and putting ourselves on a collision course with climate change. 

Finding a way to bring the light of her old home into the darkness of her current world proves challenging. She’s outraged that the generals don’t fight alongside the soldiers at the front—introduced as a seen-not-heard secretary, she finally erupts at their cowardice as they sit in an insulated and well-appointed room, deciding whether other people live or die. She, of course, takes off for the trenches. 

She continues to be pummeled with the brutality of the front and must eventually face her own crisis of conscience: Is the world—are humans—even worth saving? Should that even be her job? The work of the Wonder Woman movie is, in part, finding a way for a dispirited demigod named Diana to reconcile her ideals with reality, find her place in the fight and keep going; while none of us may have been sculpted in clay and brought to life by Zeus to help protect the world, it’s strangely easy to relate to wondering what our own work should be right now, and what power we have as individuals. 

It won’t be for everyone, but for me the movie is much-needed inspiration and a reminder that, in the end, it’s up to each of us (not just the most powerful) to find where we fit into the project of halting our descent into destruction—and to choose love over hate.

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Since 2009, Grid has reflected the best of the Philadelphia region: our social entrepreneurs, food innovators and wellness advocates; our makers and doers, artists and activists. We are proud to set our sights on our100th issue this September, and we want to celebrate with you—the inspiring community who has helped us reach this amazing milestone.

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In praise of the hardworking tree

Nature’s Miracle Worker

by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

In the same way that friends in rural areas might know the difference between a tree branch hitting the side of the house and someone knocking on the door, city dwellers learn to distinguish—before we’ve even turned around—the sound of a car behind us from the hiss of the hydraulics on the bus we’re waiting for. We’re all animals, attuned to our habitat.

At the same time, we filter out and ignore much of what we regularly see and hear, and one element that we’re probably not paying close attention to are the trees around us that, among other good works, muffle the abrasive sounds of sirens and people.

After reading Jill Jonnes’ book “Urban Forests” I am even more appreciative of Philadelphia’s investment in our tree canopy—especially in disinvested neighborhoods—and our deep relationship with trees. Jonnes recounts the stories of various insect infestations in the last century, when entire neighborhoods, suburban and urban, rich and poor, were shorn of their tree canopy overnight, leaving mourning families and barren blocks, the trees loved but underappreciated until they were gone.

The stories made me think again about how lucky I am to have a mature elm in my neighbor’s backyard (though it’s being choked by ivy). In the front courtyard, another neighbor has a beautiful dogwood that just bloomed. A sugar maple that popped up six years ago in a patch of derelict dirt just steps from my door is now 30 feet high; I just pruned it so that its branches wouldn’t keep my petunias from blooming. And at the back of my house, there is a giant, forked male mulberry that I know is having an affair with the gorgeous fruiting female in the Old Swedes churchyard three blocks away. It’s hard not to think of them as people.

City trees do so much for us, we might as well list their vocation as “miracle worker.” If just those four humble trees around my house were taken down, there’s little chance that I would sit on the patio and hear birds: I’d be hearing more of I-95 instead. The neighbors and I would be peering into each others’ open windows in the summer instead of seeing the leaves rustle in the twilight. I’d be paying more in the summer for electricity, my basement would flood more often and I’d be breathing in more pollutants. 

Their avocation is providing us with beauty and a connection to nature that keeps our minds settled and our spirits soothed. They soften the hard edges of our buildings and our psyches. They also provide habitat for all kinds of mammals, insects and birds, which at my house, just a block from the four busy lanes of Washington Avenue, begin stirring and chirping at 4:30 a.m. My only-in-a-city neighbors include three opera singers on the same block, but also a hawk who makes a feathery mess of some of the less fortunate pigeons in the neighborhood, a cadre of squirrels who eat my bulbs, the occasional raccoon who scales the chain-link fence in my yard unphased by the barbed wire and an opossum who has taken to walking in the open back door at night in search of cat food while I’m quietly reading on the couch. We’ve surprised each other more than once, but the opossum is better at playing dead than I am, and once I had to just sit on the stairs waiting for her to wake up and find her way out. My tiny house is little more than a tent made out of bricks, and what’s a tent without trees?  

An arborist, unkindly, once called my mulberry a “weed tree.” If that’s true, then I have an announcement: I’m an unrepentant weed hugger.