A group of Norwood Avenue neighbors started Garden Walk Buffalo in 1995 with a fishbowl of dollars and the dream of a better neighborhood. Volunteers met on porches. The 29 gardens on display attracted ... visitors.
This weekend's Garden Walk is expected to draw 65,000 visitors to 400 gardens scattered through neighborhoods stretching from Forest Avenue west to the Niagara River.
"It's all about encouraging streets that were marginal and giving them the means by which they can change a vacant yard to a garden," said Gail McCarthy, whose late husband, Marvin Lunenfeld, founded the event. "I think it's magical, the need for human beings to grow things in gardens everywhere."
Lunenfeld's vision fostered bonds between communities that remain today, said McCarthy, a Florida resident visiting the Buffalo area to attend Garden Walk events.
"My husband was a renaissance man who played the guitar and taught urban studies," McCarthy recalled. "He was kind, brilliant and a genius at organization. The Garden Walk would have never gotten off the ground without him."
It was the mid-'90s, and Lunenfeld, a history professor at SUNY Fredonia, was increasingly dismayed at the growing use of crack cocaine and the effects it had on some neighborhoods in the city, McCarthy said. A garden-centered event could transform neighborhoods and at the same time instill pride in its residents.
"When a neighborhood started to slide, it's like an infection," she said. "He could see the potential for restoring the vision of the city. One of the inspirations for Garden Walk was to bring back some of the original beauty to our street."
Lunenfeld and McCarthy had moved into a Victorian house on the corner of Norwood and West Utica Street. Norwood, running parallel between Richmond and Elmwood avenues, was considered a "swing street" by residents who pointed to drug use and rundown dwellings.
"Our house needed a fair amount of renovation," McCarthy said. "The improvements included a garden and a bench we installed in the front. We had a diverse population who occasionally slept overnight on that bench. Drug problems were surfacing and started to spread. Yet there were so many absolutely beautiful homes. We ended up having gatherings on our porch."
McCarthy credited her mother with instilling an appreciation for gardens. The 12 years she spent in Washington in the 1960s and 1970s with her first husband, the late Rep. Richard "Max" McCarthy, fueled that interest.
"We were there during the '60s amid a beautification program started by Lady Bird Johnson," McCarthy said. "The streets of D.C. were in transition, and Mrs. Johnson's program was really about community and establishing pride. I had the opportunity of being a part of that program."
The spirit of Lunenfeld lives on today in the beautification micro-grants that help expand the event's footprint each year, said James Charier, a media relations specialist and Garden Walk volunteer since 1997.
The Marvin Lunenfeld Beautification Grants, named after his death in 2012, helped steer $100,000 in donations for 150 neighborhood projects, Charlier said.
This year's grants went to the Chippewa Alliance (planters), the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park (garden beds), Block Association of 16th Street (banners, planters), Friends of Sisti Park (gardens) and Middle Highland Block Club (planters and plantings).
"Garden Walk Buffalo has changed in every significant way," Charlier said. "In the beginning fishbowls placed at the visitors centers attracted up to $5,000 in funding on a good weekend. It was the event's sole source of funding. Today, the largest sources of income are corporate sponsorships, private donors and merchandise."
Charlier estimated the cost of staging the event from $12,000 to $17,000.
Through the years, the planning committee tried different events to increase fundraising, Charlier said. Extending the Saturday hours of the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers Market was a "financial blowout" because it rained.
"We didn't want to take the chance again," Charlier said. "Everyone wanted to see gardens. As a group we now try to keep focus on the gardens. We haven't done a party for a long time, but we were approached with an offer from One Symphony that is raising funds for the tower restoration."
The event's success has garnered national attention, drawing garden writers from across the country and as far away as Australia. It also inspired other cities to launch garden tours including Garden Walk Cleveland and Cooper Young Garden Tour in Memphis, said Charlier.
This year will see six buses ferrying visitors between designated stops identified in the Garden Walk map distributed at the five visitor centers. Enhancing customer service in the visitor centers are Yoland Fields, next year's 25th anniversary chairwoman, and Barb Cavanaugh, who heads the Volunteer Committee.
Cavanaugh estimated 60 volunteers help the two-day event run smoothly. From her vantage point at Buffalo Seminary on Bidwell, she noted five "undiscovered" garden areas, with contributions from gardener Steve Muscarella: Arlington Place, Johnson Park Green, Dorchester Road, and Lafayette and Windsor avenues. Johnson Park shows neighborhood revitalization at its best, Cavanaugh said. Lafayette features an English Garden in its second year, while Dorchester boasts an 800-foot median maintained by neighbors.
McCarthy, who will attending the church garden party, looks forward to visiting many gardens in her brief stay here. She remains amazed at the event's progress since her husband's involvement.
"People didn't pay much attention to the front of their house, but in the back were these secret gardens that others never knew existed," McCarthy said. "They helped restore the neighborhood.
"I wish my husband were here today. He would be so happy."
Garden Walk Buffalo visitors come from far away — and they stay
Here's the percent of visitors to the annual summer event who:
- Travel more than 50 miles one way: 53
- Have visited before: 75
- Have never been to Buffalo: 10
- Plan to return in 2019: 89
- Stay overnight: 25
- Stay two nights: 75
- Stay in hotel or motel: 65
- Are over age of 45: 81.5
- Have household incomes more than $50,000: 75
- Are female: 78 percent
Note: Visit Buffalo Niagara analyzes the demographics of Garden Walk Buffalo visitors. Surveys were conducted online in 2017 and available at the five visitor centers, generating responses from 699 visitors.
Those going to Garden Walk Buffalo have a lot of ground to cover:
- Circumference of Garden Walk Buffalo: 11 miles
- Estimated economic impact: $4.5 million
- Shuttle stops: 33
- Gardens with water features: 57
- Vegetable gardens: 63
Source: Jim Charlier of Garden Walk Buffalo