A Prayer for the City

Franklinia Alatamaha at Bartram's Gardens. (courtesy)
Franklinia Alatamaha at Bartram's Gardens. (courtesy)

In 1765, two explorers, 700 miles from their home, in an era when that distance was a world away, happened upon a white flowering small tree never before identified.  Eleven years later relying on his hand drawn maps, one returned to collect and propagate its seeds.  By the time the seeds were grown, the tree disappeared into extinction. Since I first heard the story of the Franklinia Alatamaha tree in a horticulture class in 1976, I’ve wanted to see it in bloom in the garden where it cheated death.   In all these years of having it on my mind, I’ve never seen one except in pictures.   This year I did visit the Franklinia and its home, which together tell a story of love, loss and hope. 

John Bartram and his son William were botanists, philosophers, and scientists with a plant nursery on 200 acres along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia selling plants to buyers as far away as Washington’s home in Virginia.  They also sold a boxed collection of 100 seeds from their new world discoveries in England for a sum of a pound and a shilling, a price equal to three months of a skilled laborer’s wages.  Those seed packets started a small frenzy for growing exotic plants among British landscape enthusiasts. So keen was the interest in their botanical discoveries, that a wealthy Briton paid William a sum almost equal to the value of his father’s 200 acres to return to the south and send his finds and drawings back to England. 

Eleven years after the death of his father, William did return to the back country of Florida, Carolina and Georgia, on a four year expedition, making beautiful drawings of plants, animals, and people as well as discovering as many as two hundred newly identified types of plants including the first hydrangeas.  He befriended a Seminole chief who nicknamed him Puc Puggy, “the flower hunter”.  

Cover page of William Bartrams 1792 “Travels”. The Seminole Chieftain Mico Chlucco”

He returned to the family home and propagated the newly discovered plant and named it after a close family friend, Ben Franklin, with whom John had co-founded the American Philosophical Society. The plant is neither hard to grow from seed nor fussy about conditions, yet within twenty five years, every single Franklinia in the wild died off.  None have ever been found since. By chance, the Bartrams passed through a closing window in time and the last surviving Franklinia in the world ended up in Philadelphia and those magical seeds that William Bartram brought back from his treks in the wilds became a gateway past extinction.  

Kingsessing neighborhood crime map 2009-2019 (source: Philadelphia Police).

Bartram’s neighborhood of Kingsessing, which means “Place of Meadows” has wilted around his home. The Gardens themselves are still there along with the original buildings, surrounded by auto junkyards and oil refineries. The Franklinia itself faded from interest. In fact, a plant census recently found only 1800 of them from Maine to Florida.  There are more than twice that many Japanese Cherries just in the Washington DC National Mall area. Though it has an appealing faint fragrance of tea roses and camellias, Franklinia’s brilliant white flowers are a bit ragged edged and misshapen and not very showy like a dogwood’s, or DC’s beloved Japanese Cherries.  Nobody pays much attention to Franklinia, or its Kingsessing neighborhood either.  Bartram made exquisite notes and maps to be able to find the Franklinia on his return (see photo above). He wouldn’t need a map if he came back today to find the misery surrounding his home.   You cannot walk a block without treading on the site of a tragedy. The red dots are Kingsessing homicides in the last 10 years.  No plaques mark the fallen. No histories are related for their closed windows in time.   It is a tale retold on the pavement of hundreds of American cities.  Philadelphia is only 88th on the “Top 100 Most Dangerous Cities in the U.S” list.

Since I heard the story of the Franklinia 43 years ago, my work has included designing and building parks and churches in struggling inner city areas of Newark, Camden, Chester, and Philadelphia.  We’ve had construction sites that were cleared of human remains, murders across the street, all a matter of course. I lived for twenty years in inner city areas before “gentrification” was a word.  That doesn’t make me any sort of race relations expert.  But I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve seen the odd contrast of simultaneously working for an historic African American church in Camden, NJ where the mayor attended located across the street from public housing, at the same time as building four million dollar private homes a short car ride away and worlds apart.  A humorous aside may illustrate just how far: The Camden church’s building committee asked me where the “Nurses Station” was in my design.  What is a “nurses station” used for?   It’s for folks that pass out or generally over-do it during a Baptist church service. They got a good laugh about the naivete of their Jewish architect.  Confess: you didn’t know that either.   

Making those drives from one to the other, I would wonder at the contrast and how one rises up from the struggles of the inner city.  How?  Three simple rules almost guarantee that the young people of a community will rise out of poverty:  “finish high school, get a full-time job and wait until age 21 to get married and have children.  Of American adults who followed these three simple rules, only about 2 percent are in poverty and nearly 75 percent have joined the middle class”.   (Ron Haskins, Brookings Institute).  Almost guaranteed success.    

No one knows why the Franklinia died out.  But we do know why urban areas like Kingsessing struggle, as does inner city Baltimore that has had its 15 minutes of fame this week:  Families are an endangered species and no one is making it easier for them to flourish where they are planted.  In Bartram’s neighborhood today, one out of four adults live in poverty, one out of four don’t have a high school diploma, and one out of three live below the poverty line.   John and William would be shocked to learn that at the local high school which bears their name,  “8% of students are at least proficient in math and 12% in reading.”  (Source: Philadelphia Public Schools, Bartram High School).   The rate of children in single parent homes is bound to be far greater than the citywide number of 55%.   This week, “leaders” such as Ilhan Omar lectured us that “it is a human rights violation” to ask Guatemalans to stay in Guatemala and that we are “racists” if we question her.   Yet, while Guatemala has cut it’s murder rate in half to 22 per 100,000,  Philadelphia’s climbing murder rate is exactly the same.  

I’m currently working with an innovative multi-ethnic church within an adventurous person’s walking distance to Bartram’s Garden, so this week after many years missing the August bloom, I went.  My phone was shrieking a “severe weather alert” in a strengthening storm as I wrong turned past junk yard car shredders and modest row homes and stopped to talk with the friendly community gardeners who were eager to tell me why my GPS doesn’t know where this little pearl is hiding.  As I arrived, the grounds were suddenly deserted under darkened skies and rain. The Franklinia tree sits centered on an engraved panel set in the home’s stonework that reads,  “ It is God alone, Almighty Lord, the Holy One By Me Adored, John Bartram 1770”.   Passing under such a thankful verse, my thoughts were stilled and the years flowed together.  William had stood just where I was in the early 1790’s painting this Franklinia (below), unaware that his single packet of seeds would save one struggling little member of earth’s garden.  

William Bartram added a raindrop on the petal in his drawing, just as in my photo, winking at me, whispering in my ear a prayer for the city:  that the love of discovery, of family, of God, and a single good work could bend the river of time to become a saving act.    

“Franklinia”, William Bartram, ca. 1791
About the Author
Steve Brown is an architect who studied at the University of Pennsylvania with professional degrees in architecture, landscape architecture and environmental design. He has headed an an architecture and construction firm since 1982 in the Philadelphia, PA area.
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