Gardening Green with Doug - The Revitalization of a Beloved Community
by Doug Oster
June 17, 2020
The growl of an orange Kubota tractor loading mulch into wheelbarrows is accompanied by the scream of string trimmers in downtown Brownsville, Fayette County. EJ Petcheny, a volunteer from K2 Engineering is one of the 100 or more people working around the center of town during the Perennial Project’s Community Clean Up and Flower Planting Day.
He’s running a heavy duty weed wacker while standing 10 feet above Broad Street on an old concrete foundation. From below, someone warns him to watch for discarded needles. “I have a love of nature and a love of Fayette County,” he says of why he’s spending his Saturday working the trimmer. “I want to give back and change some perceptions, maybe spark a mind or two.”
The view from his perch overlooks a city in transition.
Eleven new small businesses have recently opened, but many of the older buildings are a shadow of what they once were, when this was a vibrant retail shopping area decades ago. “I’m an optimistic person,” he says with a wide smile. “I always try to find the good in everything. I know that change won’t happen overnight. Unless I come out here and put the work in, nothing’s going to change.”
The Perennial Project is the brainchild of Joe Barantovich and Laura Patterson. It began with a simple question from Barantovich to landscape architect Patterson when he asked her, “I want to plant some flowers, can you help me out?”
The two formed a bond to create the project and are working with the help of the local government and many others to turn things around for this blighted city. Barantovich grew up here, leaving in 1979 for a teaching and coaching career in Florida. In all that time, he held on to the family home and when he returned, his city was gone. “I didn’t want to come back and just complain about how it looked,” he says.
The Perennial Project began last year with meeting in December, a town clean-up and the initial flower planting in the spring on 2019. “I figured I could do it,” he says humbly of taking on the challenge.
As he glances over toward the stage in the center of the work area, a garden is filled with students and staff from the Brownsville Area School District planting a mulching. “The best part about it is seeing all the young kids here,” Barantovich remarks. “My generation, most of us left and I’m guilty of that. These kids know nothing but the way it looks now. We want to give them a reason to stay.”
Patterson is driving a pickup around the corner and up a hill to an old brick building filled with flats and hanging baskets from Cellurale’s Nursery in Connellsvile. Some were purchased with grant money and others were donated by the garden center. In the back seat is Dr. Keith Hartbauer, the superintendent of schools for the Brownsville Area School District. He’s spent much of the day pushing a wheelbarrow filled with mulch back and forth from the Kubota to one of the gardens.
Hartbauer met Barantovich at a high school football game and the two clicked over the project. “My philosophy as a superintendent is to connect the schools with the community,” he says. “That’s a major part of establishing a successful school district. This was a perfect opportunity to get our clubs, activities, staff, and students involved, and a way for them to give back as well.”
He’s loading plants into the bed of the truck in front of a dilapidated, old building with glassless windows. Despite what’s standing in front of him, he foresees a better future for the city. “This is a beautiful place, it’s a community that’s starving and needs some hope,” says Hartbauer. “It’s a community that wants to move forward and this is a start. You have to do these little things first before the big things start to happen.”
The truck is loaded and the pair head back to the planting areas. “There’s a rich tradition here,” he says. I believe there’s a tremendous amount of pride, the people are hardworking and they want the best. The foundation is starting to be built. Once we get a solid foundation then we can move forward.”
State Representative Pam Snyder has served the 50th legislative district for the past eight years (she’s not here for a dog and pony show) and is genuinely thrilled to see what’s happening around her as she photographs the action. “This is an amazing revitalization to watch,” she says. “I’ve seen the people of this community work so hard. I just can’t even tell you how it warms my heart. I’ve watched how all of these folks have tried to make their town beautiful.”
Snyder brought Patterson and Barantovich to Harrisburg in an effort to help them navigate the grant process and champion their cause. She acts as a conduit for the Perennial Project to point them in the right direction and avoid red tape.
“Brownsville is alive again,” Snyder says with a wide smile. “It’s a wonderful community. The people here are amazing, hard-working, dedicated, loyal, salt of the earth South Western Pennsylvania breed.”
One of the new businesses in Antiques On Broad. As Petcheny continues to work next to the building, Patty Pavtis, who is an antiques dealer there, has created a lovely garden next to the store. It’s filled with plants from her own garden. Daylilies, hostas, burning bush, butterfly bush, black-eyed Susans, yucca annual flowers, and more fill the bed. But there’s one special plant with a family history called a purple clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata) also growing there.
Her mother-in-law first took a piece from her own mother’s garden in 1940. “When I married her son in 1966, she gave me a little start of it,” Pavtis says. The blue flowers of this perennial are starting to fade, but will return next spring. “Since I love plants, I brought them from my house and planted them out there to look pretty,” she says. Converting this little patch of a city lot seems daunting, but not for this gardener. “It took one day,” she says proudly. “But I loved it, it’s not work for me.”
One minute Patterson is delivering plants, supervising getting them in the ground, and next she’s answering questions from volunteers. A pop-up chalk art installation is being created over colorful wings attached to the side of a building. “It’s an angel wings selfie station,” she says beaming, “so you can come to town, and spread your wings and fly.”
Brownsville holds a special place in her heart as her grandmother’s family emigrated here as part of an Eastern European migration to work in the coal mines. “Before she died, we brought her back here,” Patterson says quietly. “When she did, she cried. It’s something that has stayed with me,” she adds. When Barantovich asked her that one simple question about planting flowers, Patterson knew it was the start of something much bigger. “It was a way for me to give back,” she says, reflectively.
As Patterson scans the sea of workers transforming the downtown area, she reflects on her dream for the city. “My hope for Brownsville is the momentum continues and we actually can change the conversation from blight and degradation into a prosperous town, and give people hope.”