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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Beautification committees keep Long Island neighborhoods growing

Volunteer members of the Baldwin Civic Association's Community

Volunteer members of the Baldwin Civic Association's Community Garden gather in the garden that they have worked so hard to beautify. Front row, from left, Rita Cavanagh, John Cochrane and and Jessenia Mendez Velazquez; back row, from left, Richard Perez, Helena Hillian, Jean Smyth-Crocetto and Lenny Motel. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

A town or village is a geographic area with defined boundaries and, usually, a local government. A community, however, is much more: There's a sense of fellowship, and often shared interests and goals. And when a community unites people, they can accomplish a lot more than individuals.

"Everyone here has their day job," said Matt Baney, technical director of the Cherry Grove Theater in the Fire Island hamlet where he has spent the past 25 summers, "but they also have very different hobbies they enjoy and talents to share." Among them, "we have financial wizards who can garden," explained Baney, who spends weekdays as director of HIV services for Mount Sinai Health Services and assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine's School of Public Health. 

"Some can perform, others teach yoga," and when everyone brings those gifts to the table, "it becomes the beating heart of the community."

Baldwin Community Garden

At 7 a.m. on a cloudy morning in April, volunteer Rita Cavanagh put on a pot of coffee and logged into Facebook. She was excited to share news with more than 2,000 neighbors who follow her Baldwin Civic Association's page. On this day, she posted a video clip of the installation of a mural depicting a historic Nunley's Carousel horse at the Baldwin train station. The civic association, whose page she administers, commissioned the work earlier this year from artist Michael White of Garden City.

Next, she poured herself a cup and checked in on her Baldwin Community Garden page. There, she notified the group’s nearly 400 members that a local Girl Scout troop had finished planting flowers and painting a cheerful hot-air balloon design on weather-beaten wooden picnic tables at the community garden, which she founded in 2014.

Cavanagh often uses the social media platform to call for volunteers and typically receives offers from Girl Scout leaders via Facebook Messenger. When that happens, she matches troops to age-appropriate tasks, sets a date, meets with the troop and hosts their visit. Afterward, she returns to Facebook to thank them publicly, praise their hard work and post action photos.

Cavanagh grew up in Kensington, Brooklyn, a “concrete jungle with plenty of green spaces,” she said. When she moved to north Baldwin in 1999, she was surprised by what she found lacking. “There were some parks south of Sunrise Highway, and one closer to the Freeport border, but I felt like there wasn’t a place in North Baldwin that was an essential area for people to bring their kids, read a book or ride their bikes,” she said. “If those types of areas exist in Brooklyn, I thought, ‘Why can’t we have that here?’ ”

Chairwoman of the Baldwin Civic Association's Beautification Committee at the time, Cavanagh eyed a nice plot of unused land behind the Baldwin Historical Society that she thought would be an “ideal spot because it was central to anyone living in the area. Kids coming home from the high school pass by, yet it was sort of off the beaten path,” she remembered. “I knew it would make a cool little oasis with garden art and benches.” But back in 2014, she didn’t know how to get started or which municipality owned the property.

After investigating, Cavanagh learned the parcel belonged to Nassau County, but the adjacent parking lot was owned by the Town of Hempstead. With help from the civic association, she drafted a proposal, met with the county's Department of Public Works and obtained a permit for the Beautification Committee to establish a garden on the land behind the museum.

“The county installed a split-rail fence to set up a boundary and gave us some picnic tables. Most were repurposed, so I had Baldwin High School teacher Michelle Liemer-Kelly’s AP art students come to paint van Gogh reproductions and other designs on them,” Cavanagh said. “And high school teacher Vinny Leis’ tech students built Adirondack chairs and a footbridge for us. Others painted murals on the side of the museum. And next fall, an Eagle Scout will be building a gazebo” for outdoor events like concerts hosted by the group.

"Our art students have been an intricate part of the garden for several years now," said Liemer-Kelly. "Not only does it build strong school-to-community bonds, but it allows them to share and showcase their talents while giving back to their community. They are always surprised to see the garden and more than excited to contribute to this hidden gem that Baldwin is very proud of." 

Cavanagh recalled a time when she didn’t know anything about gardening — or cable television. It was her introduction to the latter, a perk of a job at Cablevision 21 years ago, that acquainted her with the former, and as a result, HGTV network. “I became obsessed with it,” she said, “and I started planting a garden, and my husband and I began visiting gardens around the tri-state area and even in France.”   

These days, she repairs planting beds, weeds and does most of the shopping for plants that aren’t donated. Although she works with “an ever-changing roster of volunteers,” sometimes she works alone. “A couple of years ago I planted 15 lilac plants by myself. But when it involves a lot of muscle, I defer to the stronger folks in town. I’m only 4-10½,” she said with a laugh. 

Beyond the garden, Cavanagh spends time fundraising for local events, and she is focused on eliminating litter from the community. She credits Sanitary District 2 for its quick responses to her requests, and was pleased when the district provided a solar compactor for the garden.

In addition, Cavanagh has advocated for such initiatives and projects as the plastic bag legislation and the crown jewel of the community garden — a large area some call the “communal garden.”

Different from traditional community gardens, where residents “rent” plots for a season and grow edibles for themselves, Baldwin's Community Garden is planted by its members for everyone. “Nobody buys anything here,” Cavanagh said. “We all plant herbs, blueberries, raspberries — and they’re all just there for the taking. If you want it, come down and help yourself.”

In addition to food crops, residents donate time and skills to improve the garden for everyone. Paul Lizio, owner of Grand View Auto Body on nearby Brooklyn Avenue, made a frog planter for the garden; Jessenia Mendez Velazquez recycled old tires into a charming teacup planter; Janine Specht made a message-board planter that the civic association uses for announcements; and Tom Owens, who owns Evergreen Landscape in Roosevelt, “brought in wood chips when we had nothing. He installed sculptures for us, and his crew does the mowing.” 

Some people have made signs, others have installed plant ID tags in the garden area, and a Baldwin Girl Scout troop built a meditative labyrinth. The beautification group even organized a community “yarn bombing” event, enlisting 10 volunteers to crochet and knit sweaters for many of the hamlet's trees and lampposts.

“It looked really cool,” Cavanagh said, “but some residents weren’t happy, so for the next project, I asked the volunteers to make a cover for our old wheelbarrow. I even taught myself on YouTube how to crochet just for the project.” 

“The garden is very unifying,” Cavanagh said. “It’s the one place where it doesn’t matter what your political background, religious background or age is — everybody appreciates a garden. It’s so nice to go somewhere and hear, ‘Hey, thank you. I bring my granddaughter here all the time.’ It just warms my heart. It validates my existence.”

Cherry Grove Community Garden

Meanwhile, farther east and across the Great South Bay, Peter Chace was recently on his way to the Cherry Grove Community House and Theater, the hub in the Fire Island hamlet whose year-round population of less than 20 residents swells to 2,000 in the summer. He stooped to grab a piece of windblown trash and placed it in a nearby garbage bin. As he did this, he noticed stray weeds and plucked them as well, then decided some of the plants in front of the building looked thirsty. Before he realized it, an hour had passed, but getting sidetracked was a labor of love.

Chace, who lives in Brooklyn and has spent the past 15 summers at his home in Cherry Grove, is one of roughly a hundred community members dedicated to keeping the community beautiful. Of them, 20 to 30 are regularly active: There’s Todd Erickson, owner of the local garden shop, Coastal Roots, who routinely lends expert advice on native plantings to the club and donated the master plan for its community garden; Mitch Volk, who is “extremely knowledgeable about planting techniques and taking care of plantings once established” and who volunteers countless hours to group projects; Richard Reilly, an “extremely talented vegetable grower who has a wonderful vegetable garden on the dune”; and Dave Vallee, who, Chace said, is “very good at transplanting plants from one location to another.”

The group thrives not only because it's a tight-knit community, he said, but because each member brings different strengths and expertise to the group.

“We came together as a forum for learning how to garden on Fire Island,” Chace said, explaining that the climate and terrain make the hamlet “a unique place. … We encourage the planting of native plants whenever possible to reduce dependence upon watering and better to support the ecosystem.

"We’re also interested in protecting our monarch butterflies, which migrate through here in the fall, so we’re installing native milkweed and other plants that they need in our garden,” he said.

Chace, who works in financial services in Manhattan, learned to love gardening as a child when a favorite uncle from Quogue introduced him to growing vegetables and flowers. After he bought his home in Cherry Grove, he attended a public meeting at the Community Center as a way to meet his neighbors. That evening, he joined the Garden Club — “and they made me president right away,” he said, explaining that “the president at the time was in poor health, and the club was looking to pass leadership to new blood.” Chace filled the spot and has been overseeing beautification projects since. 

The Community House and Theater, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is the oldest continually operating gay summer theater in the United States. Dating to the 1940s, the center installed a new cesspool in 2017, work that resulted in the loss of its plantings, Chace said. So the garden club stepped in to spearhead new landscaping. The building's landmark status and cultural significance, he said, meant “there was grant money from New York State, which allowed it to be extensively remodeled and renovated.”

There were challenges, Chace said. “Because of the location, we needed to use all native plants,” he explained, “and then, even more challenging, we had to find ones that were deer-, salt- and wind-resistant in order to address special issues facing Fire Island due to its location and climate.”

“Because we landscaped using native plants, which are not necessarily as showy as nursery annuals,” Chace said, “we were anticipating, possibly, some negative feedback over not being colorful enough, but we got none. The native plants are delightful and most have adapted well, but we did have to replace a few of the grasses to another variety that will adapt better.”

The club aims to xeriscape, or plant drought-resistant varieties, and tries to select plants that “support beneficial insects and bird life, and our native plants that would grow in a marine environment well,” he said.

Maintenance is a community affair, as well. Weeding is scheduled as needed, Chace said, adding that members typically go out as a group on Saturday or Sunday mornings, before it's too hot, to pull weeds, put down mulch, prune and replace failing shrubs.

“There’s an overall sense of community pride here, so we take ownership of the gardens and donate our time as a group, but we also go in individually and water if it’s needed, or identify a plant and replace it if it’s not doing well, or pull some weeds.” 

Their efforts do not go unappreciated. Matt Baney, the theater's technical director, knows firsthand the benefits of the street-facing garden. He can see it from the horseshoe window in the attic technical booth where he works and says it’s contributed to growing use of the community center. “The garden club has brought attention to the building,” he says, adding that the plantings’ “full palette of colors” and the garden lighting bring people in. “They wonder, ‘What’s going on in that place? It looks attractive. I want to see what’s in there for me.’ "

Medford Volunteer Gardeners

Barbara Bruce wants Medford residents to feel that same kind of pride when they commute to work. The retired Sachem elementary teacher co-founded the Medford Volunteer Gardeners group in 2002 with a neighbor and vice president of the Medford Taxpayers and Civic Association, Don Seubert. Soon afterward, when the town’s Long Island Rail Road station underwent a two-year renovation that doubled its size, the pair worked with the LIRR to construct a Sept. 11 memorial garden there.  

“The railroad leveled the ground, put in paving and added benches,” Bruce said, “but somebody needed to plant it.” So the pair joined the civic association's landscape committee (creating a committee of two) and collected plants donated from friends and neighbors in Medford and Patchogue, the Long Island Daylily Society, and the clearance section of local stores — out of their own pockets. “And then the two of us planted them all,” she said.

“After the unveiling of the memorial in 2004, we were still on our own,” Bruce said, so she enrolled in the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County's Master Gardener Program, where she collaborated on a low-water-use garden project.

“What I learned there, we did in the garden,” Bruce said, adding that three more master gardeners and community volunteers joined the effort. Before long, “word spread, and people came to me or to Don to volunteer. And friends have friends.” The group has grown to seven primary members with occasional volunteers. 

Over the years, the group has tweaked and expanded the garden, returning often to maintain and weed it; volunteers have improved its overall condition, learning as they go.

“In the very beginning, Don had to use a pickaxe to make holes because the ground was awful. But then we added mulch to it, making it easier to plant,” Bruce remembered. “Then we learned to plant in groups — in drifts — for better impact of color. It was all trial and error." 

How long did the project take? “Well, we’re still working on it,” Bruce quipped, as the memorial garden’s 15th anniversary approaches.

The group’s most recent project, completed in 2017, was planting a giant letter M — for Medford — on the east end of the railroad embankment, where it's visible to passing vehicles. Boxwood shrubs form the hamlet's capital initial, enhanced with color from crape myrtles, echinacea, coreopsis, eastern cactus, torch lilies, a variety of sedums and ice plants, among others, selected for their superior performance in dry, hot areas.

Betty Baran, a retired East Setauket schoolteacher from Medford, joined the effort when she met Bruce through the CCE after completing the Master Gardener Program there in 2005. While working on the "big M," she documented the garden's progress over the days, weeks, months and seasons since the first holes were dug. "We didn't design anything," she said, flipping through her photo album filled with bright images of the garden, which appears professionally planned. "We just planted. It's incredible what you can do with low-water plants," she said. "The daylilies, monarda and phlox are spectacular!"

With things mostly under control at the train station, the group branched out, planting at the Route 112 Veterans Memorial Park and, later, at Toth Square in Medford.

Bruce acknowledged her group's impact on the community, but said another important benefit has been personal.

Working on gardening projects is “very peaceful, it helps me de-stress,” she said. “There’s a great feeling of accomplishment, and it’s a social thing, as well.” To that point, on Friday mornings beginning each March, the entire group reconvenes at the train station to prune and clean up the gardens.

“We’re always on the lookout for more low-water-use plants to add,” Bruce said. “Only the 9/11 garden has an irrigation system installed; the rest depends on Mother Nature.” Mulching has helped to retain water, she noted, “so last year, during the entire summer, we only had to water a few times during long, dry spells.” 

Project Bloom

May is showtime for Islip’s Project Bloom. Back in February, a legion of volunteers gathered in a greenhouse in East Islip’s Brookwood Hall Park to plant seeds for the greater good. And they’ve been returning to lovingly tend them twice a week since. The initiative is a joint venture of Keep Islip Clean, a not-for-profit, certified affiliate of the national organization Keep America Beautiful, the Town of Islip and the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, and the volunteers who have poured their blood, sweat and tears into growing 7,000 plants to simply give them away three months later, as they have every year since 1993.

“For two frenzied days every spring, the plants are handed off to other Keep Islip Clean volunteers to plant in public spaces around the Town of Islip,” explained Nancy Cochran, the organization’s executive director, who provides community groups with order forms listing plant varieties available in any given year.

“Volunteers take these free plants and put in the hard work to plant and maintain them for all of us to enjoy,” Cochran said, adding that some plants may head to a community flower garden in Brentwood, for example, and others to “a lovely area planted by the North Great River Civic Association in a traffic island.”

With “self-sufficient” volunteers running the greenhouse, Cochran, a 15-year resident of Islip hamlet with a background in corporate advertising, is free to oversee other initiatives. Like the community vegetable plot that’s open to all Islip Town residents. Volunteers weed between boxes and help with general maintenance, but plot holders are responsible for their own gardens and must pledge to care for them when they sign up.

“We don’t take fees for anything,” Cochran said, explaining that the town, which owns the greenhouse and the land, “provides a budget, and the gardeners make it work. They leave us alone to do our thing. They recognize that it enhances the town, and they’re very supportive.”

Beautification is just one aspect of Keep Islip Clean, which also prioritizes litter cleanup. “We’re working to beautify public spaces, and part of that is ending littering, encouraging recycling and educating the public,” Cochran said. The group enlists 225 volunteers to keep individual assigned roads clean under its “Adopt a Highway” program, and clean and beautify areas specified under its “Adopt a Spot” program.

In all, 6,000 volunteers are sent forth into the community by Keep Islip Clean every year to clean and beautify. They include corporate groups and Girl Scout troops, for instance, which donate one or several days to help, as well as individuals “from all walks of life, from kids to senior citizens,” Cochran said.

A recent community cleanup yielded 80 bags of trash, a mattress and other debris, “and that’s all been taken out of the environment, so you can see what they can accomplish. I feel so proud, not only of what was done, but of the people who do it,” she added.

“My job is going around all day, seeing people do good things, and working with volunteers. It’s a wonderful feeling,” Cochran said. “If you’re volunteering, generally speaking, you’re a wonderful, giving person by nature. These are community people — people who want to do good in the world. These are the people I’m working with, so you can imagine how satisfying that is.”

One of those people is Susan Pellegrino, a 35-year Central Islip resident who, for 20 years, has worked with the North Great River Beautification Committee, which adopts a one-eighth-mile spot on Connetquot Avenue and Windsor Place. "Central Islip is constantly in the throes of the perception that we have deeply rooted gang activity, a transient population, drugs, prostitution and crime — and we do," she said. But having a beautifully planted spot "on a major artery that everyone on the South Shore uses kind of diffuses that image. It says, 'Not everything is like that.'

Organize or go rogue — but follow local laws

Some community beautification organizations on Long Island are run like businesses, employing directors and managers to work with municipalities, set budgets and organize neighborhood volunteers, either on their own or under the auspices of government or private groups. Others are run by volunteers who obtain permission from their village, hamlet, town or county to plant or develop public property, often lobbying for government grants. Others still are informal gatherings of like-minded friends and neighbors who, without hierarchy, bylaws or government affiliation, conspire to improve their community. They may work with libraries, schools or businesses to plant in storefront sidewalk strips or cultivate barren plots or community eyesores. Regardless of structure, the heart of these groups is volunteers.

And then there’s “guerrilla gardening.” The fad took root in the United Kingdom and became somewhat of an international movement after the 2008 publication of the book  “On Guerrilla Gardening,” by Richard Reynolds. Guerrilla gardening is principled specifically on not asking permission and, therefore, it may be illegal in many instances. The book contends the practice began on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1970s.

Guerrilla gardening can range from planting annuals on abandoned property or in neglected public areas, such as around street trees — where it often goes undisputed — to the disbursement of “seed bombs,” made primarily of clay and wildflower seeds, tossed onto land deemed as needing improvement.

The problem with this is threefold: “Neglected” is a perception and “needing improvement” is in the eye of the beholder. In a court of law, the eye that matters most is the property owner’s. Wildflowers, although charming, are virtually impossible to eradicate, meaning that even a well-intentioned seed bomb can be considered vandalism. And trespassing can lead to arrest.

If you’re interested in beautifying your community, identify bare or weed-laden patches of soil around trees on sidewalks, in front of shops, in strip malls, in parking lots or near libraries, churches or schools. Then reach out to the property owner for permission to plant flowers, ground covers or even vegetables. In many cases, the landlord might welcome help; some may even pay for or contribute to materials, but don’t count on that.

If you have a neighbor who is unable to maintain their property, offer to spruce it up for their benefit as well as that of the whole block.

You also might contact the owners of so-called zombie houses, vacant houses in foreclosure that have been repossessed and aren’t being maintained.

Check with your town or village hall to find out whether there are any laws banning public planting, and inquire about vacant lots that could benefit from a little TLC.

To create a structured beautification group, you’ll need to identify and navigate the proper organizational channels. “Usually, you have to have a civic association, and the group forms as a committee of that,” said Rita Cavanagh, chairwoman of the Baldwin Beautification Committee. “You could do it without, but it gives you a little more power to be part of a civic that has bylaws, etc.

“That’s the starting point: Join the civic and see if there’s already a committee, and if not, start one,” she advised, adding that “getting a space is the hardest part.”

Barbara Bruce, of the Medford Volunteer Gardeners, stressed planning. “Research everything, know the environment of the area, make sure you have a volunteer base,” she said. And a vital part of planning, she said, is gaining approval. “You must get permission from the owner of the land, whether it’s a church, a municipality or organization.”

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