We had come to share stories, mourn the loss of the trees, and build a movement.
We gathered on a warm Saturday in late April, at the place where Haddington Woods meets Karakung Golf Course, in the shade of a sugar maple that had been spared by the lumber trucks.
Tim Dunn unloaded two saplings and a box of wine from a pickup truck and then busied himself making introductions among the crowd of neighbors and new acquaintances. Another attendee showed up with a portable wood-fired pizza oven and a folding table and got to work.
While we were waiting for more people to arrive, Ro Mauer, a soft-spoken young herbalist from the adjacent Haddington neighborhood, pointed out three edible plants that were growing at my feet, between sidewalk and street. I had mistaken them for weeds.
Ron Whyte, a seasoned environmental justice organizer, wore green-framed glasses and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the Brazilian flag. He invited people to sit in a circle in the grass. We took turns saying our piece.
I had to lean in to hear Ro Mauer. “I have a communication disorder,” she began, “but when this happened, I felt I had to speak up. Because if you don’t speak up, they can do whatever they want.”
Mauer wasn’t only speaking for herself. She learned these woods on walks with an older herbalist mentor who had passed recently. “I’m out here to speak up for the woods and the forest, and I’m out here to speak for him,” she said.
I had no trouble hearing Austin Kelley’s booming baritone voice. “Thank you for teaching me about crimes that don’t break any laws,” he said, addressing the Cobbs Creek Foundation, the club of rich White golfers responsible for the destruction of 100 acres of mature trees on the golf course.
The deforestation had run afoul of no laws; to the contrary, the Foundation was being lauded by civic boosters for the private money it had raised to “restore” the creek and educate the neighborhood youth.
Betsey Piette wasn’t buying it. She was furious with the city for “giving the land away to a golf course for a buck without seeing an environmental impact plan.” She lambasted Philly’s Parks & Recreation for authorizing the clearcutting of a hillside in a flood plain, and for destroying the habitat of countless nesting and migratory birds.
“Those were old growth trees. Tulip trees and black walnuts. They took down our history,” she said.
This wasn’t Piette’s first foray into grassroots environmental organizing. She and her husband Joe Piette, whose Upper Darby home overlooks Cobbs Creek Park, fought to stop a food-processing plant on Market Street from dumping chicken guts into the creek.
Ray McKenzie, an Overbrook resident who volunteers on trail cleanups with the Cobbs Creek Alliance, was skeptical of the project’s supposed benefit to the Black community.
McKenzie had toured the deforested golf course with city officials. “I felt like they were trying to sell me on the idea that this will be good for Black people,” he said. “And I’m like, ‘This area is a food desert. We need a supermarket. Where are your priorities? Why do you care so much about a golf course?’”
The Cobbs Creek Foundation struck PR gold when they learned that Cobbs Creek and Karakung were two of the first public golf courses to welcome Black people and women. They’ve weaponized that history to ram through their redesign plans without truly engaging with the surrounding Black and brown communities.
The way Ron Whyte saw it, “trees are a part of our psychic landscape,” not disposable decorative elements. “They’ve killed members of our community.” After a meditative pause, he added, “But it’s good to sit with our emotions, and be in community together
Yes, it did feel good to sit with people who cared as much as I did about the destruction of nature in my backyard. In a city beset by violence and poverty, one can be made to feel as if speaking up for the trees — or the migratory birds — is a luxury for more insulated folk. Philly politicians are quick to exploit this perceived hierarchy of needs should their record on environmental stewardship be called into question. Whyte was suggesting it made no sense to put human needs above nature. They were one and the same.
Whyte grew up by the zoo in the West Fairmount area. He’d worked on Mural Arts’ plastic bag ban initiative but soon became frustrated by the slow speed of change. After a stint supporting an Indigenous community on a reservation in Arizona, Whyte came to see the colonization of Indigenous lands as connected to the way Black people in the inner-city were treated by the people in power, as resources to be extracted, or something in the way.
Sitting on Philadelphia grass, Whyte drew a parallel between the Cobbs Creek Foundation’s grisly handiwork and the deforestation of the Amazon under Bolsonaro’s racist and ecocidal regime. “In both cases,” he explained, “you have a rich White minority determining the fate of the forests” with no regard for climate change or the people of color who suffer the brunt of the consequences.
Dana Henry’s connection to Cobbs Creek was personal. Haddington Woods had been her refuge during the deadly first wave of the pandemic. “People were calling me and pleading with me to help them get treatment for their loved ones at the Penn Medicine Lung Center, where I was working at the time.”
On top of the stressful job, Henry’s partner was going through a mental health crisis. They would walk the Cobbs Creek Trail, which jogs between the Haddington Woods deer enclosure and the permeable boundary with Karakung Golf Course. Sheltered on all sides by old growth trees, “it was the one place where he would open up and talk about what was going on with him. That was my therapy.”
Henry was one of the first people to sound the alarm. She tried to get the City to halt the deforestation until the Foundation completed an environmental impact plan. The trees kept crashing to the ground.
When the dust settled, Henry and other Cobbs Creek Alliance volunteers circulated a survey to more than 100 neighbors, asking how they felt about seeing the forests cut down, and if they had been provided an opportunity to give input on the project. The respondents were overwhelmingly unhappy with the tree removal, and no, they had not been consulted.
Henry was doing everything City leadership should have done to gauge community concerns around such a massive redevelopment project. In late April, she invited City officials to see the devastation for themselves. On the tour, a chastened representative of the Foundation struck a conciliatory tone — the Arts Commission had just dealt his project a setback by rejecting the building plans. But it was obvious to Henry and others present that the Foundation’s real interests lay in smoothing things over with their government sponsors.
Timothy Reimer wanted us to know he wasn’t anti-development. He worked in the building trade, and his lumberjack-like physique seemed to back that up. But Reimer had followed the money and didn’t like where it had led him.
“Peeling apart this onion of corruption, you think you’re in the center and there’s five more layers,” he said.
On the devastation tour, which Reimer had also attended, Parks commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell told participants that the Foundation was spending $15 million to fix the creek. Reimer had been quick to point out that they’re getting $15 million back from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, $800,000 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and $3 million from the City, a net gain at taxpayer expense.
Henry wondered if the Foundation could be trusted to do a thorough creek restoration that would mitigate the flooding of downstream communities. Couldn’t they do just enough to stop the fairways from flooding? Who, exactly, would hold them accountable?
Beth Teigen, founder of the Philadelphia Mycology Club and a recent Overbrook transplant, spoke of the need for a Friends of the Wissahickon-like organization to fund trash cleanups and have a voice in decisions affecting the Cobbs Creek watershed. “The Wissahickon,” she pointed out, “is taken care of not because of City investment but because of the private support of the Friends of the Wissahickon.”
I tried to imagine a barely announced deforestation occurring along the Wissahickon, under the Friends of the Wissahickon’s watch. Nope. It wouldn’t have happened. Not like this.
A gray-haired woman who owned a well-kept home facing the golf course ambled over and joined our circle. Yvonne Lee said of the tree removal, “I woke up one morning and I could see Upper Darby. And I said, ‘Hi, Upper Darby!’”
We laughed. Lee didn’t know exactly who was behind the deforestation or how it had been allowed to happen, nor did she seem inclined to learn the details. But she knew enough about how City politics worked.
“By the time it gets to us it’s a done deal,” she said, casting an intense gaze around the circle.
Lee’s observation couldn’t have been more astute. At the one neighborhood meeting where the Foundation had presented plans, they had misrepresented the scope and purpose of the tree removal, condemning the trees that would be removed as invasive or diseased. By the time that meeting was held, the Foundation had already applied for the permit to raze the trees.
From his home in Devon, the vaulted ceiling behind him blurred but still managing to foreground his wealth, Cobbs Creek Foundation President Jeff Shanahan gave prepared answers to carefully screened questions about educational programming, accessibility, and greens fees.
The May 18 Zoom meeting had been billed as a town hall, with members of the public invited to submit questions in advance. I assumed the purpose of the meeting was to address the project’s many detractors.
Each of the questions Shanahan chose to answer elicited another benefit of the project, the bulk of which would accrue to the minority youth of the surrounding communities, who were apparently clamoring for caddie jobs and golf instruction. None of the questions he chose to answer were about the tree apocalypse that had made headlines.
With chat disabled and no indication of the number or tenor of the community presence, the town hall felt like broadcast television. The four representatives of the Foundation talked among themselves. They were the only meeting participants with faces and voices.
Councilmember Curtis Jones, Jr., calling in from a much livelier public event, offered an apology on behalf of his suburban friends and campaign backers. Jones’ campaign has received over $22,000 in contributions with direct links to the Foundation, including an illegal donation of $2,500 made by the Foundation itself, since the group began lobbying the City to lease them the land. Which they did, for $1.
“If we had to do this all over again,” he declared, pausing for gravitas, “I believe we would have done it differently.”
Jones publicly recognized the Cobbs Creek Ambassadors for their commitment to tree conservation in West Philadelphia, and said he regretted that environmental stewards had not been consulted earlier on the project.
“That’s my bad,” he said. But now that the train has left the station, he argued, the project must proceed. “Stopping it will not reforest the golf course.” But it would bring community benefits and raise surrounding property values.
Instead of taking a cue from Jones’ rhetoric, Shanahan went on the narrative offensive. He soliloquized, in a hard-edged monotone, describing Cobbs Creek as “filled with trash in many areas,” degraded by erosion and prone to flooding. The implication: the watershed was in need of intervention. And who better to restore the fallen land than the masters of the universe who comprise the Cobbs Creek Foundation?
Shanahan claimed “there really wasn’t a good alternative” to calling in the lumber trucks and bulldozers. They’d had no choice but to destroy the trees, to save Cobbs Creek from itself.
Insulated from the boos and jeers that these remarks would certainly have elicited had the town hall been an actual town hall, Shanahan reverted back to his mother tongue: money.
The golf course was “a stranded asset” and a “liability to the City.” (According to LinkedIn, Shanahan is also the executive chairman of ParkHub, which offers “a complete parking ecosystem.”)
In any case, Shanahan maintained, the Foundation was only “executing on what has already been approved by the City.”
The Foundation has pledged to plant 1,500 trees on the golf course property and in the surrounding communities. I never learned how, when or where the canopy was going to be restored, how the remaining trees were going to be protected during the upcoming construction process, or if the Foundation was still pursuing a zoning variance to cut down trees from the steepest slopes. (They withdrew their application in April.)
Shanahan has made his real priorities clear enough. He recently told Golf Digest: “There were a lot of potential donors who said, ‘If you ever do actually get started, come see us at that point.’ Well, now we’re showing actual progress. Trees are coming down. People are seeing activity. Activity generates more activity. We’ll be raising the funds as we go.”
For the Cobbs Creek Foundation, hundreds of downed trees is a fundraising tool.
The Golf Digest writer gave the unvarnished reason for the tree removal: to reclaim fairways, improve turf conditions, and open up sightlines. The end game: a PGA Tour stop for Philadelphia.
Of the deforestation, the writer gushed: “The dramatic rolling hillside property is now visible from adjacent streets, no longer screened from view. From spots within the golf course site, the Philadelphia skyline is now a shining backdrop.”
One imagines these are the types of triumphal conversations Shanahan and the obscenely rich board of the Cobbs Creek Foundation are having with Philly pols when they’re not indulging in sham community engagement.
Karakung’s Ten-Thousand-Year Human History
The history of Karakung, the Lenape name for Cobbs Creek, did not begin in 1916, with the creation of a golf course that bears its name, however masterful its design.
The Lenape presence in the region goes back at least 10,000 years. Before European colonization, Karakung was thick with managed forests fed by clear, fish-stocked streams that supported abundant wildlife, including bears. The word Karakung refers to “wild geese,” ancestors of the same wild geese whose honking occasionally wakes me at dawn as they fly past my bedroom window in Millbourne toward the creek.
According to Mike Weilbacher, director of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, the Lenape used controlled burns to suspend the forests in a lower stage of succession, favoring the light-loving trees and plants they liked — especially chestnuts, oaks, and the blueberry bushes that attracted the wildlife they hunted.
“Penn’s Woods neither belonged to Penn nor was a pristine wilderness,” Weilbacher has written. “Among their many qualities, the Lenape were exceptional ecologists continuously molding the land to fit their lifestyle.”
When the Europeans arrived, those sustainable practices quickly went out the window. Dutch, Swedish and English colonists diked and drained the marshes to provide dry ground for pastures and diverted streams to power mills. Wholesale clearcutting of the forests coincided with the forced displacements of the Lenape throughout the 18th century.
The influential 19th century American historian Francis Parkman explicitly linked deforestation to Indigenous genocide, writing in 1851, the American Indian “will not learn the arts of civilization, and he and his forest must perish together.” (As recently as 2014, Harvard Magazine rated Parkman “the grandest and most ambitious of our historians”.)
The removal of first the Indigenous people and then the forests they managed likely led to increased runoff during storms, sedimentation and erosion, according to Adam Levine, historical consultant for the Philadelphia Water Department. The heavy urbanization of the past century and government neglect of recent decades has only exacerbated the unstable conditions created by Karakung’s first colonizers.
The Cobbs Creek Foundation’s narrative of Karakung is that it was only ever a golf course, that the golf course was once great but had succumbed to mismanagement, and that it must be restored to its original 1916 design.
If you read the Cobbs Creek Foundation’s website, you’d get the impression that things only started going badly in the 1950s. “Over the next 60 years, the creek began to overflow, greens were washed away, fairways were destroyed, and the historic clubhouse was lost to a fire. Which is what brings us here today.”
The historical amnesia and myopia of this narrative would be laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous. Recent events have shown us what happens — and who suffers — when a group of powerful, nostalgic White men become convinced it is their mission to restore the once-grand past.
City Hall Isn’t Going to Save Us
As much as I distrusted Councilmember Jones for his corrupt relationship with the Cobbs Creek Foundation, he had at least acknowledged that harm has been done, and that people are angry about it. That basic political instinct goes a long way in explaining his longevity as a third-term councilmember.
I wanted to find out if Jones was serious about correcting the “mistakes” he had owned up to, and being a better environmental steward for his district, which encompasses Cobbs Creek Park and parts of Fairmount Park, going forward.
When I called I got Jones’ communications person. I told her I had questions for the councilmember about the tree removal. She asked me if I’d attended the town hall.
Oh, had I attended the town hall!
“The Foundation said they’re going to plant 1,500 trees,” she offered, sounding peeved.
Indeed they had. But I wanted to know what Councilmember Jones was going to do to prevent another massive deforestation from happening on his watch. Jones’ staffer told me she would relay my interest in interviewing the councilmember. Jones never got back to me.
As it happens, At-Large Councilmember and Wynnewood resident Katherine Gilmore Richardson has stepped up with a bill designed to close some gaping loopholes in Philadelphia’s barely enforced tree code.
Under the new rules, an environmental advisory board will be notified when a deforestation is about to go down. Developers will be required to replace trees they cut down on park lands — a requirement that does not currently exist — or pay into a tree fund for heritage trees they don’t replace.
Gilmore Richardson’s bill passed the rules committee on June 15, but not without major carve-outs. Council President Darrell Clarke got his entire 5th District exempted from the regulations. Clarke’s fiefdom encompasses parts of East Fairmount Park and Hunting Park. Low-income housing developers and the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development, a private-public development outfit currently eyeing a 50-acre forest in the Somerton neighborhood of Northeast Philly, also secured exemptions.
Yes, you read that correctly. City Council made new loopholes in the bill designed to close the loopholes.
Even if it hadn’t been weakened by the more brazenly corrupt members of Philly’s council, the bill won’t stop deep-pocketed developers from destroying mature forests, should they be so inclined. The legislation codifies the 20th-century practice of replacing trees rather than preventing them from being cut down in the first place. Urban policy wonks call that a perverse incentive.
If this is the most City Hall is going to do to protect trees during a building boom, our tree canopy is in big trouble.
Back in March, Grid editor Alex Mulcahy called for Parks & Rec commissioner Ott Lovell’s resignation over the deforestation she authorized. City officials, including West Philly Councilmember Jamie Gauthier and Fairmount Park Conservancy Director Maura McCarthy, rushed to Ott Lovell’s defense, closing ranks around the powerful bureaucrat.
McCarthy noted that Ott Lovell had initiated the first long-term plan to “grow the city’s tree canopy.” Why then, did Ott Lovell hastily approve the destruction of 0.6% of the city’s entire tree canopy?
I reached out to Senior Adviser for Environmental Justice Genevieve LaMarr LeMee. She wasn’t authorized to talk and referred me to Communications Director Maita Soukup. Soukup responded in the form of talking points I’d already heard rehearsed at the fake town hall.
My follow-up questions — why Parks & Rec decided to authorize the tree removal without a completed environmental impact plan; how the decision to remove so many healthy trees was deemed acceptable given Parks & Rec’s publicized long-term goal of growing the city’s tree canopy — were met with silence.
For these bureaucrats, protecting their career interests and raising the city’s profile at the expense of a thousand trees is an acceptable trade-off.
City Hall isn’t going to protect our natural inheritance from duplicitous developers. It’s on us.
Only the Beginning
Let the earth stabilize your postcolonial insecure jitters.
–Joy Harjo, US Poet Laureate
Growing up near the 69th Street Terminal in Upper Darby, Cobbs Creek Park was an oasis of green in a desert of strip malls, heavy traffic and diesel fumes.
I got to know the golf courses not as a golfer — the game never appealed to me — but as a hired hand, tending to the trees, turf and other features of the built landscape, on the grounds maintenance crew. Even for a teenager the pay was pitiful, but it did give me an enduring sense of responsibility for the place as a de facto nature preserve.
After the speakout in Haddington, my mind was a swirl of voices. Optimism. Solidarity. Ideas. Why couldn’t the golf course be a nature preserve? A bird sanctuary crisscrossed by walking trails? Free and open to the public? A food forest like they have in Seattle?!
I had felt heard, understood, my connection to the land that had nurtured my love for nature as an adolescent deepened by virtue of its being shared by so many of my neighbors, new acquaintances, elders, even recent transplants.
Like Dana Henry, the pandemic had by necessity brought me in closer contact with Cobbs Creek on a daily basis. When the golf course ceased operations in 2020, no one I knew mourned its closing. To the contrary, our imaginations were fired by the new possibilities it opened up.
In a talk at a conference on landscape and gender, Rebecca Solnit elaborated her ideas on what a landscape of equal access would look like:
“One of the functions of landscape is to correspond to, nurture, and provoke exploration of the landscape of the imagination. Space to walk is also space to think, and I think that’s one thing landscape gives us: places to think longer, more uninterrupted thoughts or thoughts to a rhythm other than the staccato of navigating the city.”
This is a conception of landscape I imagine golfers could get behind. The problem is, the golfer’s claim to landscape is inherently classist and exclusive of a variety of uses. The game presupposes a suburban conception of land use that segregates recreation from food production or simply being in nature. It requires a set of clubs, greens fees, and adherence to an unspoken code of conduct and dress. Servants are optional.
For those of us interested in cultivating something closer to Solnit’s ideal, a truly inclusive public space, the game is much simpler. Everyone is welcome and it has one rule: you don’t sacrifice trees for your game.
Though it has been colonized and put to absurd uses, the land around Cobbs Creek is not fallen, as the golfers would have us believe. During the pandemic we watched as the golf course shook off its business casual and grew its hair long, inviting deer, foxes, wood ducks, cranes, eagles, and migratory birds to make themselves at home in its shaggier new forms. South Philly residents found a similar escape valve in the defunct golf course that blossomed into The Meadows at FDR Park, as Anisa George has so eloquently written about.
Sure, there was creek restoration work to be done, stormwater and invasive plants to be managed, but that could all be worked out with proper planning and the political will to invest equitably in Cobbs Creek Park. In the meantime, the land was exhaling, it was primed for restoration, and the climate was better for it.
But just as soon as we began to dream of Cobbs Creek’s postcolonial future, we saw those possibilities wiped out. We saw our history erased, as Betsey Piette put it, in the name of historic restoration. Ron Whyte’s words also stuck with me. They’ve killed members of our community.
We saw the destruction with our own eyes. A veteran friend likened it to a war zone, or the scene of a natural disaster, the rolling hills strewn with 100-foot sycamores and white pines whose needles were still silken.
First we were gaslit by City officials about the reason for the clearcutting. Then the Cobbs Creek Foundation, which has always viewed the surrounding community as an afterthought, spun webs of PR around us, talking “sustainable philanthropy” and “leadership training.”
We had one thing in our favor: the power brokers knew very little about us. They had known nothing of our capacity for devotion, our commitment to protecting and sustainably stewarding our natural resources. None of the people who gathered at the speakout had thrown up their hands in cynical despair. We had come from all of the surrounding neighborhoods, from all walks of life, all of us connected to Cobbs Creek in some deep way. And despite our mistrust and frustration with Philadelphia’s institutions and politicians, there was one thing everyone wanted: accountability.
Whether we knew it or not, we owed a debt to our Lenape predecessors, who had sustainably stewarded these lands for thousands of years before European settlers evicted them. We owed it to them (and their living descendants) to see that the land and waters be truly restored, in accord with sound ecological principles and democratic decision-making. And we owed a debt to future generations. To halt the destruction now. To stand in the way of development by the few for the few.
The hubris of a handful of sentient polo shirts had helped the friends of Cobbs Creek find one another. This was only the beginning.