Are you struggling with the neighborhood in which you live? Are the ‘cons’ besting the ‘pros’ no matter how long you make that list? Are promises of ‘urban renewal’ by elected officials merely promises, or worse, unsophisticated attempts lacking vision and funding? Most importantly, are you unable or unwilling to move?
Maybe you have more control over that neighborhood than you think. Maybe it’s time to pick up your trowel and start an urban renewal with your own front yard.
While I do have a habit of linking the garden to pretty much every aspect of life (leading to the occasional eye-roll on the part of friends and family, and particularly my teenagers), my philosophy is simple: The outside world connects us to each other and to the Earth – exponentially enriching our lives. Creating a garden is a way of accessing that connection for oneself and one’s community, and doing so is worth the effort we expend upon it.
This week in Buffalo, NY, I saw this way of life illustrated by an awe-inspiring collection of gardens and gardeners. Working together and with the event Garden Walk Buffalo, each one has helped re-energize a struggling city and make it a tourism destination point. While only a two-day event in July, the result of 400+ city gardens prepared to meet well over 60,000 visitors every year is a city that lives and breathes green and beautiful spaces during the entire growing season.
Hell strips have become Heaven strips. Entire city blocks have been transformed. Citizens take pride in their homes and the homes of their neighbors – often going above and beyond to take care of adjacent properties that need a bit of TLC.
But it’s the backstory that makes this event so astonishing. Over two decades ago it started with just 29 gardeners touring each other’s gardens.
That’s it. A garden tour between gardening neighbors in an economically depressed city whose heyday had come and gone. Each of these gardeners had chosen to pick up a trowel in the midst of urban decay and change their world.
They ended up changing a city.
Buffalo gardens: An unexpected surprise
The trip was, to say the least, an eye-opener. I’ve never been to Buffalo and knew little about this rust-belt city that has seen a severe drop in fortune over the last seventy years. Before I left, a good gardening friend and
Creating a garden is a way of accessing connection for oneself and one’s community, and doing so is worth the effort we expend upon it.
Turns out he hasn’t been to Buffalo in a very long time. And during that time there are those who have been imagining…and implementing.
Buffalo is New York’s second largest city with just over 250,000 people (from a peak of 580,000 in 1950). It sits on the eastern shore of Lake Erie, and provided the western terminus of the Erie Canal. The Canal, completed in 1825, became a crucial route for trade and manufacturing between The Great Lakes and New York City via the Hudson River.
A changing demographic. A challenging landscape.
My friend was on point when it came to the architecture of Buffalo. Outstanding examples of art deco and Victorian buildings do pepper the city, and the visitor is instantly aware of the part it must have played in commerce and industry during the 19th and 20th centuries.
At 11.30 at night I gazed up at a steel skyscraper completely encased by terracotta blocks and marveled at the craftmanship of a bygone age. Plant-geek colleagues on an architectural hooky hour snuck into the offices the next day and reported that it was just as amazing on the inside.
Yet over the last few decades as the city deteriorated and residents fled to the suburbs, many neighborhoods have battled with a drug culture, rising levels of crime, prostitution and an increasing amount of absentee landlords with little connection to their communities. At the last census in 2010, the median household income in Buffalo was just over $30,000 and and almost a third of residents lived at or below the poverty line. Though there are many fine examples of Victorian and Queen Anne homes, many houses are a patchwork of siding, additions, not-so-perfect paint jobs and small lots. In short, things are far from perfect.
Urban renewal…through gardening
And that, my friends, is the point. There is no need for perfection here. To walk through these neighborhoods – to go house to house studying the grassroots efforts of homeowners taking back their neighborhoods one garden at a time – is nothing less than inspiring.
There are formal displays and over-the-top exhibitions of color and excitement. There are Japanese gardens, water features and plant collector showcases. Some gardens have a secret aspect to them, whilst others spill out onto the pavement and offer themselves to passers-by.
‘Buffalo Style Garden’ – It’s a thing.
However, from whimsical Edens to outside Tiki bars, each garden has one thing in common: a uniquely personal feel that is not always present in garden-tour gardens. The term ‘Buffalo Style Garden’ is now regularly used to reflect this idiosyncratic approach to gardening – an ideal one for those who might not consider themselves gardeners at the outset but who have many other interests that can easily be incorporated in their outside spaces. For instance, I saw a Harry Potter garden this week – each plant carefully labeled with the humor and wit of a die-hard fan. I will not forget it.
Garden Walk Buffalo & Gardens Buffalo Niagara
Now in its 23rd year, Garden Walk Buffalo operates through Gardens Buffalo Niagara – a nonprofit 503(c)(3) organization that supports local garden events, art sales and bus tours and is in turn supported by the generous gifts of sponsors and donors.
GBN gardens are regularly featured in high-end gardening magazines. The organization gives out grants for community beautification projects such as hanging baskets or street median gardens. It makes an economic impact of 4.5 million dollars on a city learning how to renew itself in a new millennium. And let me tell you, it knocked the socks off of 354 garden writers from all over the nation this week (and we only saw a small percentage of the participating gardens).
One other not-so-minor detail? This 400+ garden tour is completely free. No tickets are required.
Gardens for the people, by the people
Think your community is not up to the challenge? Convinced you don’t have the skill to create that kind of gorgeous? It’s important to understand that with few exceptions, these gardeners are not garden ‘designers,’ they are regular people with a passion for their town and a passion for gardening. They are gardening with what they have. They are building on each other’s knowledge base. They are enhancing their neighborhoods – not fundamentally changing them with a “magic pill” development. They have overcome the challenges of their properties and seek to help others do the same.
It is my very great hope that those facing similar challenges in cities and communities across the nation will too.
Remember – Niagara Falls is just 30 minutes from Buffalo! Time to pull out the calendar and schedule Road Trip 2018!! For more information on Garden Walk Buffalo and the July 2018 schedule, visit GardensBuffaloNiagara.com