Cherry trees for Cherry Hill

Chapel Avenue’s line of cherry trees has a special meaning that delves much deeper than the spring blooms for some local residents.

A small social club in the early 1970s that was formed in the Windsor Park section soon evolved into a township-wide pursuit to bring positive activities into Cherry Hill at a time when negative publicity was dominating the news headlines.

“Cherry Hill was criticized,” as several high profile crimes occurred around that time, including a murder in the Towers of Windsor Park, Joe Zanghi said.

Zanghi, 77, is a longtime resident and one of the only original group members still living. He was 37 years old when the project began.

“We formed a social club to combat the negative activities going around the community,” he said.

The goal of the members was to change the perception of Cherry Hill. In turn, they had to think of a challenging way to pull together residents.

Through brainstorming, members remembered a lane of cherry trees at a farmhouse that existed near the Cherry Hill Mall. During the peak of blossoms, people came from all over for a look. And so the idea of planting cherry trees along the approximately two-mile stretch of Chapel Avenue began.

Now, 40 years later, the last of the shade trees on the stretch of Chapel Avenue were removed and, on Saturday, April 13 around 10 a.m., the plantings of more than 20 cherry trees will finalize the project.

“Cherry Hill firefighters will be planting the cherry trees. They have been doing the plantings of cherry trees on Chapel Avenue for the past 40 years,” Zanghi said. “At the same time, the American Legion Post No. 372 will be installing American flags and yellow ribbons onto the cherry trees in remembrance of the victims of Sept. 11, 2001, and to honor our men and women in the military.”

A website, http://cherryblossomsincherryhillnj.yolasite.com, chronicles many of the quests of the group over the last four decades in detail.

Every year, shade trees were removed and more cherry trees were planted, dependent on available funds.

“In reality, it was very difficult,” he said. “We were just residents. We proved our worth.”

Zanghi had the backing of Dr. John Rocco, who was mayor when the plan was initiated, and a lifelong friend.

“Cherry trees, Cherry Hill,” Rocco, 77, said. “We were very supportive.”

He has been a resident since 1965, when the area was still known as Delaware Township.

“Cherry Hill’s been very important to us,” and the blossoms are a direct symbol for the town, he said.

For 20 years, the Cherry Blossom Parade encouraged plantings around town before the parade came to an untimely halt in 1993 due to a lack of adequate funds.

Still, the project surged onward, met with support by some local officials, firefighters and many residents over the years.

“At one time, we had nuns show up to help us plant,” Zanghi said.

When the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred, the group wanted to show its patriotism. The trees were adorned with American flags and yellow ribbons as living memorials to the victims. The flags have been hung each year since, though Cherry Hill police keep an eye on the trees following the destruction caused by vandals one night in the early 2000s.

This year, Zanghi reached out to Mayor Chuck Cahn for support in removing the final shade trees on the strip.

“He made it possible for it to be completed this year. I’m forever grateful to him,” Zanghi said. “That was of tremendous help to me.”

With his longstanding dream coming to fruition, he expressed a desire for the township to take over community plans at the cherry trees in future years.

“It’s really time for other leaders to come forward to pick it up. I knew it was time for me to try to pass these into the hands of younger people,” he said. “It’s very good to the community what’s being done.”

The trees will need yearly maintenance. Some die and there are holes that still need to be plugged, he said. If 23 trees are planted, there will soon be 1,450 lining the roadway.

For best viewing, peak blooming season depends on the weather. Sometimes it can happen in early April, while other times the trees bloom as late as May.

For Zanghi, perseverance and determination were key over the years.

“I just stuck at it,” he said.

To Rocco, there are two leading reasons to be proud as the end of the project nears.

“I’m excited not only for the township, but for my good friend Joe Zanghi. We’re happy to support him and to give Cherry Hill its symbol of its name,” he said. “It’s something that’s so different.”