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© Allison Usavage

Beautification Brigade

The Tompkins County Community Beautification Program plants and maintains gardens in public spaces, and is funded by the Hotel Room Tax in Tompkins County. A Q&A with Martha Gioumousis, Community Beautification Program Coordinator, and Miguel Berrios, Community Beautification ​Program Assistant.

What do you do?

MG: It seems so simple, but really what it comes down to is we plant flowers. We work in the public areas in downtown Ithaca, and we send some money out to the rural areas because the program covers Tompkins County. We plant flowers and try to make everything as beautiful as possible.

© Allison Usavage
Who is it good for?

MB: I would say it benefits really everyone in our community. We have a number of people every day that we’re out coming up and thanking us for making Ithaca more beautiful, for greening up some of the different public spaces that would be lacking otherwise. I think that the county as a whole really benefits: the tourist industry where we live is boosted. When people get here, they’re going to want to return, and they’re going to want to enjoy and see more. So I would say, really, everyone.
MG: Especially people who notice flowers.
MB: The brigade really loves helping us and volunteering. For a lot of people I think having an outlet for their civic engagement is important and this is one spot where a lot of people can do horticulture. They get thanked as much as we do when we’re out and doing our work.

What change are you trying to make?

MB: It often lifts up the different areas and neighborhoods that we do our plantings in. It gives people something that they can be proud of. And I think it can change people’s perspective. I think it makes them more proud of where they’re living.
MG: One of the people who works here works over at Southside a lot, and we gave him a bunch of plants that he planted in front of the Southside Center. There was a huge problem with vandalism there, but he said “I’m committed to continuing… I’m just going to plant again and plant again and plant again until they stop vandalizing these plants and start to have that ownership and appreciate that there are plants there and that there are flowers there and that they’re beautiful.” So I think it is a huge, kind of transformative way to make a little bit of a difference in pocket places in the city.

What brought you to this?

MG: I was a volunteer. I think I just saw a notice in the paper and said “oh that’d be fun…” and at the time I was working doing outdoor work planting flowers, so I would do that all day then come do the beautification in the evening.
MB: I have a background in landscape architecture so its sort of an application of landscape design for me as well, using a bit of a different host of plants.

© Allison Usavage
How does this impact Ithaca?

MG: It’s so direct… it’s just beautification! People smile. People talk. People enjoy the flowers. People notice the flowers. I think its very straightforward. It creates a culture of appreciation and enjoyment.

What struggles have you encountered?

MB: We spend a lot of time trying to make sure what we put in the ground survives.
MG: Watering is a struggle. Weeds and water. We have some pernicious nasty weeds out there that we’re constantly battling.

© Allison Usavage
What inspires you / What should we be celebrating?

MG: I love flowers and I think its amazing to just work with them and have them grow and just do the amazing things that they do. You plant a seed and it grows into a plant then the plant has these incredibly beautiful flowers. To me, even after all these years, and I can’t think of how many countless thousands of flower seeds I’ve planted, it amazes me every time.
I’m inspired by our volunteers too… they’ve just done this great thing and then they get to appreciate it. Once the’ve worked on an area in the city, they own that area. Every time they go by they’re like “oh I did that, I did that, I did that too!”
MB: And that inspires me too… I’ve never been thanked so many times in any other position that I’ve worked. Its almost like every single time that you’re out people are always happy that you’re doing it and there’s always so much gratitude and honking. The community really rallies around it. We’re doing this community work but the community is just giving just as much back in gratitude.

© Allison Usavage

How can we take part?

MG: Anyone can come volunteer! Absolutely. We’re always looking for new volunteers. We work with old people, young people, in-between people. Kids come and college students come. You can come for an hour, you can come for a whole season. No experience necessary, we have tools, we have gloves.
MB: We’ll find an orange t-shirt that will fit you!


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