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It Just Needed A Little Love: An Ugly Spruce Ties A Town Together

December 22, 2014

Reading, Pa., is one of the poorest cities in the country. So when a shabby-looking 50-foot Christmas tree went up in the middle of the city's downtown around Thanksgiving, many saw it as a metaphor for the city's troubles.

Around town, they're calling it the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, with branches randomly jutting out every few feet. But while some earlier called to get rid of it, now, much of the community has rallied around the tree — and on Saturday, they lit the spruce up in a celebratory ceremony. A crowd of about 100 had to stand in the street to get a view of the tree, mounted on a downtown street corner.

"I mean, it's known for being kinda ugly, but even still, it's just the fact of Christmas," said Jessica Flores, a student at a local school.

"We're the underdog city, and it's the underdog tree," said resident Karen Wulkohicz.

Back in November, city workers made their annual visit to a local farm to collect the tree, but the owner wouldn't let them drive on his wet fields. Looking for a quick solution, they found a scraggly substitute in a park. Then the outcry started.

City Council President Francis Acosta initially wanted it gone because of the way it looked, but then reversed course and saved it from becoming mulch. National coverage of the tree tiff might have swayed him, but he says it also built a foundation for good.

"I mean, we have the private sector, we have community leaders, we have regular people [and] elected officials all together doing something that is good for the city," Acosta says.

Even though Acosta once pushed for replacing the downtown showcase with one bought with his own money, he led Saturday's event celebrating the tree.

A local TV anchor read from the book version of A Charlie Brown Christmas and one man even came dressed as Charlie Brown. Winners of a "letter to the tree" contest went home with Snoopy stuffed animals.

Reading resident Alisha Dunkelberger sees a lesson in the saga of the skimpy tree.

"You don't see this on a street corner every day, you don't see it every year, you don't see it happening all the time," Dunkelberger said, "but if you get a lot of people to show for something and care about something, then that just shows this is the community that actually cares."

In recent years, large factories have shut down in the city and many families have left Reading to look for other opportunities. Now, less than 9 percent of adults in the city have a college degree. But for people like Keith Zielaskowski, who donated money to decorate the spruce, each twinkling light offers a way forward.

"Hope for Reading; hope that we're not going to be the Charlie Brown of the nation," Zielaskowski said.

Many hope Reading's story will follow the same path as the tree's: initially dismissed as ugly and poor, and later held up as a symbol of what can happen when a community works together.

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