Dear City Hall: Why Do You Hate Christmas Trees?

Condo dwellers forced to celebrate with fakes because of old fire code

So I wanted a Christmas tree. This would not seem to be an outrageous request at this time of year. We see them for sale in school parking lots, at nurseries, on random street corners. Though trees are put up worldwide, the choosing, binding up, and strapping to the car of the Christmas tree seem a very American ritual to me. One that I have now discovered the city will not allow me to partake of.

Some background here: I grew up in Northeast Philly, and every yuletide we put up a god-awful fake tree that grew more misshapen by the year. My father would faithfully curse the twisted plastic branches and swear we were going to do a better job of packing it so it would be easier to assemble next time. Which, of course, we never did. My mother would pick a theme—the “all red” tree was a favorite—and that would be that. My brother Tom would then take me to Gaudio’s on Harbison Avenue every year to peruse that year’s models, so we could see how the other half of the fake-tree universe was living.

I begged for a real tree. But my mother inevitably complained about the potential needles and the mess and the watering, and out came the old fake from the basement closet. My brothers and I swore when we had our own houses it was going to be real trees or bust, and indeed that’s how it went. Each of us went the real-tree route and never looked back.

Until I ran right into city politics.

This past June I moved downtown, following the hordes who have decided that Center City living is the way to go. I found a fabulous apartment on Penn’s Landing with water views and close proximity to both transportation and great restaurants, and have loved living there. Then I got a notice from building management last week, reminding tenants that under city fire code, “the erection of real trees anywhere in the building is strictly prohibited.”

I may have been living downtown, but I was right back in the Northeast, circa 1973.

For the seven years I lived in an apartment in New York, I had a real tree. I had a real tree when I lived in Boston, too. You can also have a real tree if you live in, say, Baltimore. Or San Francisco. Or Minneapolis, Detroit or Atlanta. Or pretty much any major American city other than Philadelphia. Here, according to fire-code rule 806.1.1, “natural cut trees shall be prohibited in all buildings. Exception: One- and two-family dwellings.”

The fire code dates back to 1952, which was when the tree ban first went into effect, I presume after some Philadelphia Mrs. O’Leary ruined it for all of us. It was modified in 1997 to exempt the one- and two-family units, perhaps after someone (correctly) figured out the scope of the ban was ludicrous.

It still is.

I am all for fire safety, folks. Who isn’t? We all see those news reports every winter where the family gets burned out of their house because they’re improperly or illegally using extension cords to make space heaters function, or somesuch. But Christmas trees? Really? When was the last time you heard of a building going up like the Towering Inferno because someone on the ninth floor had the gall to decorate a blue spruce? My apartment has a sprinkler every three feet. If I baked a cake too long the place would be flooded within minutes.

And think of the commerce: The ban affects roughly a quarter of all dwellings in the city. That’s 25 percent of the city that can’t buy a real Christmas tree. How much revenue are local tree sellers losing out on because of that? (Remember, trees are also sales-taxable, so the city also loses.)

Summoning my libertarian bona fides, on Monday I started calling City Council to see if I could get someone to pick up the torch (sorry, bad metaphor) and lead the crusade to restore genuine Christmas trees to the apartment-dwelling community. I made a strong case, I felt: In this market, where more people are renting than owning, you need to make it attractive for people to come into these buildings; there hasn’t been a high-rise fire caused by a Christmas tree of any consequence nationwide in ages; and the city’s soft condo market is hurt when people feel their liberty infringed upon. (Hearing of my plight, a co-worker casually remarked that she and her boyfriend had been mulling a condo buy in town, “but there is no way I would buy a place where I couldn’t have a real Christmas tree.”)

I started with the usual suspects: Councilmen Frank DiCicco (in whose district I reside) and Darrell Clarke, since both of their districts encompass the highest percentage of high-rises; and Councilman Bill Green, because, well, he’s just your general rabble-rouser type. (“I feel your pain,” one of his staffers told me when I explained to her why I was calling. She said she, too, missed having a real tree.) They all said there was little they could do to help this Christmas, but that they’d look into it. I’m going to make sure they do.

Of course, in a lot of buildings, particularly those without on-site landlords, you can probably haul in a cut tree and no one’s the wiser (assuming you sweep up the needles). The fire department hardly has the manpower to police violators, though getting caught can cost you a hefty fine. Fire Department captain Jack Gallagher told me the city did adopt the international fire code—which allows real trees—in January 2004, but failed to rescind the real-tree ban. I asked him whether the department would fight overturning it. He said he didn’t know, but added, “Every year people call irate that they can’t have a real Christmas tree in their high-rise. And my response is, ‘If you want a real Christmas tree that badly, buy a one- or two-family dwelling. When you live in an apartment building, you are not master of your own domain.’”

Could The Grinch have said it any better?