The flowers are still there, in the front yard of the house on Norwood and Utica, right where Gail McCarthy planted them 20 years ago.
She did not know the perennials would be the beginning of something monumental. All she and her husband, the late Marvin Lunenfeld, understood was the power of plants and flowers to uplift the human spirit, to inspire aspirations and – ultimately – to transform neighborhoods.
This weekend’s 20th annual Garden Walk is a testament to the community-building legacy of their idea.
The Garden Walk blossomed from its origin in the founding couple’s front yard, through the rest of the Elmwood Village, and into West Side and Allentown, I have no doubt that the event they started in 1995 played a part in the revival of these neighborhoods.
McCarthy saw early on the power of nature’s beauty to reach people and alter communities. The welcoming bench she placed at the sidewalk corner of their front yard, along with the plants and flowers, prompted neighbors on the then-fraying street to step up their beautification game. The property-enhancement spread like falling dominos from house to house, block to block.
“Marvin had the vision. He understood that this could be a contagious thing,” McCarthy told me Friday. “We planted a garden, and the next year the neighbors were working on their yards. People felt uncomfortable, if they weren’t measuring up. Soon neighbors were fixing their front porches, repainting their houses. A completely new attitude grew.”
Believe it or not, given what homes in Elmwood Village go for these days, their heavily traveled block of impressive Victorians was tattered at its edges and pockmarked with rooming houses. It looked like many of the far West Side streets the Garden Walk is now creeping into.
“Our street was drifting, and not in the best way,” she recalled. “It was infinitely savable, but no one had taken direct action to do it.”
McCarthy, 78, is a conversational, captivating woman who has enjoyed the gift of a fascinating life. Although a similar event they had seen on a visit to Chicago served as the blueprint, the Garden Walk’s roots were planted decades earlier, in Washington, D.C.
McCarthy’s first husband was Max McCarthy, the congressman. She was a starry-eyed 28 when they arrived in the city. McCarthy was quickly taken under the wing of “Lady Bird” Johnson, the wife of the president. In helping the first lady with her Washington beautification program, which spread throughout the country, McCarthy saw the impact a garden could have – even on the city’s meanest streets.
“There was all this vandalism and destruction, yet the plantings were left to grow and flourish,” she recalled. “There is something about the beauty and fragility of flowering plants that brings out the best in people.”
McCarthy seamlessly weaves interesting tales, without a single “uh” or “y’know.” She is cultured without seeming prissy, classy with no hint of condescension.
“Marvin had the vision, he knew what he wanted this to become,” she told me, “The Garden Walk grew on some noble principles and a lot of hard work. What we started attracted some amazing people, without whom this would have died.”
Their attitude was inclusive and democratic. Marvin insisted that the event be free to all, with no prizes – which, he felt, would discourage the beginning gardeners they sought to inspire. The non-elitist sensibility that fueled the Garden Walk’s growth started in their front yard.
“There were beautiful gardens in Buffalo, but so many were behind gates and off-limits to passers-by,” she recalled. “I was determined to have one that was accessible.”
Their front-yard bench and garden became a gathering point – the civic equivalent of open, extended arms.
“Young mothers stopped to tie their kids’ shoes,” she said. “Bus drivers honked as they passed by. We sometimes had ‘overnighters’ who preferred the bench to sleeping on the ground. I had an ER nurse at Children’s Hospital tell me, ‘I could park closer to work, but walking past your garden gives me inspiration for the day.’ I think there’s something about flowers that’s close to the human spirit.”
This is McCarthy’s first summer back in her native city since moving to Florida 10 years ago, after Marvin’s debilitating stroke. The retired SUNY Fredonia professor died two years ago. What started as their small effort has morphed into a movement.
“I only wish Marvin were alive to see the flourishing results of the hard work,” she told me. “But it feels good to know you’ve given something back. Looking around at these neighborhoods, I think ‘transformation’ is the appropriate word.”
It is indeed.
The seed was planted years ago with a young woman in Washington, who came to understand the power of nature.