Washington Square Park, with its proximity to Independence Square, symbolizes many things to many people.
For some, it’s revered as the location of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Others respect it for its historical significance. After all, it was one of the five original planned squares laid out on the city grid by William Penn.
And for some, with its many old growth trees, plants, and lush, rolling green lawn, it represents a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday city life.
But for those who reside on the park’s perimeter, that sense of serenity has—and continues to be—threatened by the National Park Service (NPS).
Since 2002, NPS has cut down nearly fifty trees in Washington Square Park—and often without legitimate cause, said long-time resident William Hawkins. And to add flame to the fire, NPS has said it might remove yet another tree—a 150-year-old Sawtooth Oak in the park’s southeast corner.
What has Hawkins and other nearby residents like Art Bousel up in arms over this prospect results from the fact that they claim that the tree, like many of its predecessors, doesn’t need to be removed.
"The engineer from the Morris Arboretum, that the Park Service hired, said it was safe for now," explained Bousel, adding, "I should know, I was there the entire time."
Bousel, who moved to Philadelphia from Chicago two years ago, decided to live near the park in part because of the shade its trees provided. Since Bousel established residency two years ago, he claims that the NPS has removed at least six old growth trees. So as soon as Bousel found the slightest reason to suspect that the Sawtooth might be next on the chopping block— a light rope fence had been tied around the tree’s parameter—Bousel contacted the park service and learned that the tree was going to be inspected.
The inspection, which took two and a half hours to conduct, occurred on February 2nd.
"At the start of the inspection, and throughout the inspection, the expert repeatedly stated that the tree should be left alone, at least for the time being," said Bousel, adding that although the tree had a small crack on its surface, the inspector, said Bousel, claimed the tree was attempting to heal itself and "did not pose any safety hazards to pedestrians in the park."
Following the inspection, Bousel engaged in an email exchange with representatives from the Park Service, confirming the results of the inspection. The Park Service would maintain the tree for the foreseeable future.
But Bousel’s reassurances were short lived. A few weeks after the inspection, metal barriers were placed around the tree, with NPS signs announcing that the tree is unsafe.
For Jane Cowely of NPS, however, "The engineer from Morris Arboretum determined the tree had two main flaws," said Cowley, of why the tree has been quarantined from the rest of the park. According to Cowley, "the tree is cracked and has an off-center cavity."
But said Cowley, nothing has been determined yet. The Fairmount Park Commission, in fact, plans to conduct another inspection of the tree this week.
But if the tree has to be removed, said Cowley, then NPS will replant more trees, as it has "with the three Chestnuts—one planted in Washington Square, the other two in Independence Square—this past fall. "
To Bousel, the reassurances that NPS will replant the tree fall on deaf ears.
"Not a single one of the old growth trees that has been removed has been replaced," said Bousel. As for the recently planted Chestnut, Bousel refers to it "as a twig that the Park Service planted because someone donated it and they had to."
"The NPS keeps pointing to hazard issues as the reason for cutting down," added Hawkins, explaining that he disagrees with several of those decisions, such as its decision in 2002, which was reversed, to remove the park’s Cherry Blossoms.
The tree’s removal could also cause wildlife problems, said Bousel, explaining that it’s the nesting site for more squirrels than any other in the Square.
To learn more about the Morris Arboretum’s findings, visit: www.nps.gov/inde/washington-square.htm.