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West Philadelphia benefits from volunteer’s inventions, carpentry and expertise


Joe Shapiro poses at The Hamilton Mansion at the Woodlands. Photo by Neal Santos.

A walk around West Philadelphia reveals Joe Shapiro’s handiwork. He built the wooden kiosks in Clark Park, the garden beds at the Walnut Hill Community Farm, the interpretive signs at the Woodlands. He planted trees along the Schuylkill River and Cobbs Creek. And he’s pruned shrubs and bagged trash at Cedar Park. He’s the volunteer that nonprofit directors across University City say they can’t live without. 

“I’ve known of his legend for many years,” says Jessica Baumert, executive director of The Woodlands, a University City historic site, cemetery and community space, where Shapiro has constructed signs, storage, picnic tables and community garden beds. “If you think about how much stuff he’s built, it’s incredible.” 

From 1965 to 2002, the cheerful, bespectacled Shapiro worked as a civilian engineer at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and Naval Ship Systems Engineering Station. In retirement, he’s gotten the chance to live out a childhood dream. “In second grade, I said I wanted to be a carpenter, [but] the teacher said ‘No, you want to be an engineer,’” he says. “I became an engineer, but I’d still like to be a carpenter.” 

Shapiro, a 65-year-old Garden Court resident, did just that by applying his woodworking and engineering skills to community and municipal organizations, including UC Green, the Woodlands, University City Garden Club, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Philadelphia Water Department and Henry C. Lea Middle School.  

Perhaps his most famous achievement is his tree-lifting invention, “The Shapiro.” The tool, which features a rope sling suspended from a horizontal wooden handle, allows several people to pick up a heavy tree that otherwise would require a mechanical lift. His involvement with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s “Tree Tenders” volunteer pruning and maintenance group has spread use of the tool city-wide. 

Shapiro has dedicated years of volunteer service to nonprofit UC Green by using his carpentry and engineering know-how to design and construct numerous projects, including garden beds at the Woodlands Community Garden and Walnut Hill Community Farm, and storage facilities for UC Green’s hundred-odd hand tools. He has also spent time aiding the organization in planning regular neighborhood beautification volunteer events and yearly street tree plantings. He even devised a system to use the city’s fire hydrants to water trees.

“He has helped me out since [UC Green’s] inception, he does as much today as he did fifteen years ago,” says Sue MacQueen, executive director of UC Green. “He keeps streamlining our events with his A to Z thinking and now they run flawlessly. … Nobody can live without Joe.”



Download Joe Shapiro’s tree-lifting invention “The Shapiro” at


Story by Michael Fichman.

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