Flower-filled planters appearing on sidewalks and medians all over Hartford are sights long time residents have come to expect in the late spring and early summer. They've long been the most visible aspect of Hartford Blooms, a citywide beautification project, implemented by KNOX, and now celebrating it's 20-year anniversary. In recent years, however, Hartford Blooms' efforts have begun to extend well beyond just planters.
"Four years ago, I went to Buffalo," said Mike McGarry, organizer of Hartford Blooms since its beginning. Garden Walk Buffalo also got it's start twenty years ago as a walking tour of about thirty gardens. In the years since, it has grown to become the largest garden festival in the country, and more than a thousand gardens are involved over the course of the summer. "I saw what Buffalo had done, which was a front-yard concept with homes that looked a lot like Hartford's. So I brought that idea back." After collaborating on a trial garden, Hartford Blooms worked with the Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance (NINA) to pair landscape architects with the owners of fourteen historic homes on Ashley Street, in Hartford's Asylum Hill. That neighborhood became the site of walking tours organized by Hartford Blooms in 2012. Focus shifted to Hartford's West End for 2013.
This year, Hartford Blooms has expanded that neighborhood focus to the whole city with events, walking and driving tours, and items of interest throughout Hartford. The 9-day schedule of events, which began last weekend and continues until Sunday, earned the festival a Pineapple Award from the Connecticut Conference on Tourism, and a spot on Yankee Magazine's "Connecticut 2014 Editor's Choice" list.
This year's expansion has undeniably been an ambitious one, and McGarry says they may have bitten off a little more than they could chew. The budget for the entire event is around $30,000, which McGarry notes wouldn't cover the salary of even one dedicated employee, so success depends heavily on the effort of volunteers, of which there are over a hundred, helping out this week. Despite any logistical hiccups, those I spoke with are glad to be glad to be a part of it.
"For me," says Greg Secord, of Columbia Street in Frog Hollow, "it was really affirming that when the neighborhood agreed to be a part of Hartford Blooms, all of a sudden people were doing work in their yards who have never done work in their yards. So it was an incentive. And you know we all need a push every once in a while. For us, it really forced us to get our act together and get our gardens cleaned out, because it would've been really easy to put it off for another month. Avid gardeners on the street offered neighbors consulting services, if you will, if they needed some help, and people took advantage of that, and that was really a good thing. It's the way neighborhoods are supposed to work, you know, helping each other. So it was pretty cool."
"I think, too," says Judy Secord, his wife, "that people love this neighborhood, and sometimes you don't see what's in front of you. It's sort of like wallpaper — you see it all the time. So when you're looking at something through somebody else's eyes, you start evaluating, 'Is this really how I want somebody to see it, and is this how I want to see it? Do I want to make it look better for me, as well as other people?' So I think it's being able to see it differently. And there are people who don't want to be gardeners, and that's fine! I don't think anybody should be forced to do anything. But if you take care of your property in a certain manner, It's going to show well with everything that's around it. And flowers just make things better. They make you smile, make you feel good."
If past years are an indication, the impact of Hartford Blooms may last for a while. Helder Mira has lived in his home on Ashley Street for 7 years, and, while he moved to the neighborhood because of the character it already had (like Columbia Street, many of the homes on his block of Ashley appear as they did when built in the late 1800s), the landscaping projects of 2012 "definitely added to and improved [the neighborhood], and made everybody even more proud of their houses." The improvements have lasted, as Mira and his neighbors have continued to maintain their properties to a higher standard.
Avery Buell, of North Beacon Street in the West End, has also seen a lasting positive impact from his neighborhood's preparations for Hartford Blooms. Another benefit he sees from working on his garden is "the opportunity to be as creative as we are. We're fortunate that even in Hartford, in relatively small spaces, you can do very creative, wonderful things. These things are not only enjoyable every year, but you can share them every year, and people keep coming back with new ideas. It's fun."
In addition to residents of the city benefiting from Hartford Blooms, McGarry also wants it to be a draw for people who don't live here. And if the 53- passenger bus that pulled up in front of the Secord's Columbia Street home can be taken as an indication, it's working. "We like this bloom business in Hartford," says John Casner, a member of the Connecticut Horticulture Society, which had chartered the bus especially for a Hartford Blooms tour. "It gives a special opportunity for those of us who don't get into the city very often to come into the city and see what's being done here. The beautification of the grounds, the yards, the homes — it's really nice. And I've been in this area a million times, but I've never been on this street. You know what I mean? So here I'm on this street seeing all this. I hope this is successful, and I hope it continues. That's the important thing."
Finally, McGarry hopes Hartford Blooms will both help change the image of Hartford, and show how possible it is to change that image by doing physical things. "You might not have the money to fix up your house, or even fix your porch or paint your house," he says. "But you can borrow some cuttings from neighbors, or go down to the regional market early in the morning with a ten dollar bill, and in a couple of hours you can have a nice looking garden in front of your house. When you get a little more money you fix your porch, get a little more money fix your windows, but for a lot of people that's the start of it. Just a couple pansies in the front yard in March in April, and the next step is fixing the house. At least that's the way I hope it is, and I've seen that."
There's a lot going on during this last weekend of Hartford Blooms, with tours in the West End, Downtown, and Asylum Hill on Saturday. Beautification projects around Hartford will continue through the summer.