When my friend Marvin died in November, he left us an important legacy. Marvin Lunenfeld had a long, distinguished career as a university professor. He was the author of numerous historical works and received awards for his scholarship. I and many others in the Elmwood Village knew him as a good friend and neighbor. He was an outspoken advocate for causes he supported in the community.
But his greatest gift to his community was Garden Walk Buffalo. Marvin and his wife, Gail, first conceived the idea in 1995. They persuaded some neighbors in the Norwood-Utica area to join them in opening their gardens to the public for two days, and in late July, 29 backyard gardens were available for viewing. Even with almost no funding and limited publicity, the turnout was impressive.
Each year, the number of participating gardens grew at a surprising rate. After four years, more than 100 were taking part. As the numbers rose, so did the work of organizing and coordinating the event. Marvin directed the volunteers who had agreed to help. We met regularly in Marvin and Gail’s living room. Seated in a circle, we would be told the tasks that needed to be done in the next few days and weeks. Marvin did a lot of the work himself, but like any good teacher, he was also skillful at getting the most from those around him.
On a number of points he was insistent: any gardener in the designated area who wanted to enter could do so; there should be no judging of gardens and no prizes given; participating gardeners were directed not to sell items to visitors. Visitors were to be treated as guests and there should be no charge to attend. In Marvin’s words, “Garden Walk encourages beautification of neighborhoods, helps improve our urban environment and proudly affirms our sense of community.” This philosophy has guided the Garden Walk throughout its history.
In 2000, Marvin announced he was stepping down. I was one of three persuaded to take on his duties. With considerable apprehension and uncertainty, we accepted the challenge. Marvin delivered to us all his records and materials: three floppy disks, two banners and a collection of green plastic chairs for visitors to rest on. Somehow, with the help of an unbelievably dedicated team of volunteers and hundreds of gardeners, Garden Walk survived and continued to grow.
New leadership succeeded us in 2006 and has taken us far beyond our early expectations. Last year, nearly 400 gardens were on display. Tens of thousands of visitors now attend each year from all over the United States and other countries. More than a dozen other garden tours have taken root in Western New York communities, and the National Garden Festival has turned gardening into a summer-long event in Buffalo and has made us a garden destination.
Sadly, Marvin suffered a severe stroke in 2003 and became physically impaired. He and Gail moved to Florida, but he continued to have a keen interest in the Garden Walk. Each year after the event had taken place, I called him to report. He would ask questions about it and at the end of the conversation always said the same thing: “You folks are doing a wonderful job.”
For his gift, the inspired vision and determined leadership that gave us Garden Walk Buffalo, we owe Marvin Lunenfeld an enormous debt of gratitude.