The problem, for Sophie Baj, is geography. Had her garden of hosta, zebra grass, peonies and yarrow prospered in front of a house on the West Side or Allentown, gawkers at last weekend’s Garden Walk would have oohed and aahed. The 60-year-old activist would have been complimented on her creativity and praised for her hard work.
Instead, the collection of perennials gracing the front lawn of her house was sliced into oblivion last month under the blade of a ride-on mower with a municipal worker at the wheel.
It’s no way for the city to show its appreciation.
“We don’t have much over here; I’m just trying to keep some beauty on the East Side,” Baj told me this week as she stood in front of the floral remains.
East Side gardeners are an endangered species. If the city keeps treating them this way, they might become extinct.
Baj has long, flowing white hair, fierce eyes and strings words together in rat-a-tat blasts. Her “mistake,” so to speak, was raising a “natural” garden at the house she owns on one of Buffalo’s bleaker streets. The steeple of St. John Kanty looms like a beacon over a neighborhood where better days are a distant memory. The house next to hers is a boarded-up shell, one of several on a block where homeowners hunker down and cling to small victories.
Baj’s front lawn was among the few points of light, as was the community garden in a vacant lot across the street. It was planted by Baj’s community group, BEST, or Buffalo East Siders Standing Together, helped by Daemen College students. It fell last week, another victim of the relentless mower blade of a municipal worker. Spared only was a shoulder-high sapling in the middle of the lot, serving as both a grim reminder of what was and a lone symbol of what could be.
“We had big dreams for this,” said Baj, a retired project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers. “People would stop all the time and say, ‘Nice garden – you’re making the neighborhood look good.’ ”
So much for that improvement.
A city official to whom she complained suggested that she place a “Do not mow” sign on the lawn.
“Who has a sign like that?” Baj said. She recently had a friend place limestone boulders in the yard to deter future mower-driven assaults.
Buffalo has a bumper crop of vacant lots, created by a decades-old policy of mass demolition of abandoned houses. I understand City Hall’s desire to keep the lots trimmed, in the name of safety and aesthetics.
Time and again, however, overzealous city workers have destroyed plantings or slapped East Side gardeners with $150 fines for “overgrown” lawns – on the same streets where hookers strut and empty eyesores abound. It’s absurd.
It could be worse. A few years ago, in an indication of just how garden-myopic Mayor Byron Brown & Co. can be, people planting community gardens in vacant lots were threatened with fines. Thankfully, the policy was reversed by the mayor after a public outcry.
Instead of suffering her loss in silence, Baj – who said this has happened “three or four” times before – is battling back. She will file a claim against the city for the $200 she spent on plants and flowers that fell to the mower’s blade.
“Now that I’m retired,” she told me, “I’ve got more time to fight.”
Like all of her green-thumb neighbors, she wants her East Side garden to grow. If only the city will let it.