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Amid the COVID-19 economic slump, some Philly businesses are giving back

Americans donated more to charity last year compared to 2019, according to a group that tracks charitable giving nationally. And at times in Philadelphia, that played out before our eyes.

Sue White, owner of City Planter, inside her shop. White and fellow employees started “The Garage,” where they sell inexpensive plant cuttings and other merchandise.
Sue White, owner of City Planter, inside her shop. White and fellow employees started “The Garage,” where they sell inexpensive plant cuttings and other merchandise.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Over time at the Philadelphia shop City Planter, between being wedged in an indoor jungle and shuffled around amid inventory shipments, some foliage would fall to the wayside and start down the precipitous path of neglect.

“Usually we try to rehab them because I think a lot of plant people are hoarders, so we can’t throw things away,” said Sue White, who owns the Northern Liberties-based business with her husband, Peter Smith. “So we were amassing this collection.” (Along with dinged-up pots and cuttings propagating in various glassware.)

With this growing pile of stuff during the COVID-19 pandemic — also a year of racial and social reckoning — Smith and White started the Garage, an online yard sale of sorts, to sell steeply discounted plants in need of TLC and well-worn or blemished pots.

And City Planter, taking inspiration from other city businesses, has donated all the proceeds to regional organizations.

“Historically, when there is a global crisis, usually what happens is there is a little bit of a downturn when it comes to large checks,” said David Semerad, cofounder of Kindest, which specializes in online fund-raising for nonprofits. “When it comes to individuals and the amount of people who care about what’s going on in the world, it actually goes up by a lot.”

The average personal donation was about $608 in 2020, with the amount of charity increasing nationally by 25% in the last holiday season compared with 2019, according to a report Kindest shared. Pennsylvanians gave an average of $489 last year, up from $420 in 2019. In New Jersey and New York, the averages were a respective $337 and $439 in 2020. Kindest scrutinized the weekly spending of 900,000 Americans based on releases from consumer finance apps, and matched it to more than 150 charitable groups.

Recipients of the Garage’s proceeds have so far included West Philadelphia’s Mill Creek Urban Farm and the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania, an Easton, Pa.-based nonprofit. The latter provides education about the Lenape Nation, which historically lived in the Mid-Atlantic — a broad geographical swath that extends from New York and covers present-day Philadelphia and its suburbs. European colonizers illegally and violently seized the land from the Lenape in the 18th century and forced its tribes to migrate west.

“Caring for plants and caring about your community are really similar,” White said. “It takes a certain kind of person to take on plant care as a career, and that kind of empathy extends to the community, as well.”

As of late January, City Planter, which publicly posts receipts from the Garage donations, had donated $631 to the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania and $1,083 to Mill Creek Urban Farm, which is run by people of color.

The cuttings sell for a few dollars each. White said the Garage was also motivated by the popularity of plant purges from houseplant hobbyists on social media. “Occasionally, they’ll sell for $20, $25, and there will be some really good finds. So it’s like a regular garage sale. Sometimes you find a treasure.”

About two miles away from City Planter, the tattoo studio and graphic design company True Hand Society created a line of merchandise emblazoned with “Leave Philly Alone” early in the pandemic and donated $10 from the sale of each T-shirt, sweater, pin, or flag. Customers chose where to send the donation from a list of more than 75 local recipients that included the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Fishtails Animal Rescue, Sang Kee Peking Duck House, and Women Against Abuse. By the end of 2020, it placed greater focus on giving to Black-owned businesses.

“It came up as a way to promote shelter in place and social distancing,” said Mike Ski, the owner of True Hand. “And we just thought it was kind of funny because it sounded like Philly attitude, and that was really the gist of it. And like I said, we kind of, like, relinquished our intent to the degree that it remains positive, but allowed people to find their own meaning in it.”

As of last month, Leave Philly Alone had raised $90,000. “It’s ... bananas,” Ski said.

“The whole thing was premised on a sense of urgency,” he said, adding that True Hand allows donation recipients to use the money as they like, which often goes toward paying the bills and staff. “We lost a lot of our regular business, so we decided to keep busy and do this.”