By Sandra Miller
For the Transcript
Winthrop is a pretty little community. When you come into town, there’s a happy little traffic island with flowers. In the center of town, French Square is a restful respite with benches and natural settings. Along the main streets, you probably take for granted just how litter-free it is.
This doesn’t happen because of your tax dollars, although the town Department of Public Works (DPW) does what it can. It’s not magic little fairies that swoop in and blow away the trash. Actually, it’s a merry band of active citizens who care about how their town looks.
The Winthrop Beautification Committee has quietly toiled away for decades, doing everything from picking up cans and candy wrappers while doing fitness walks around town; to granting sponsorships of traffic islands; to organizing large-scale cleanup of major areas, such as Hannaford Park and Crest Avenue Park. Now that it’s spring, the crocuses they planted at Hannaford and in front of Town Hall two years ago are beginning to sprout again.
They held their first meeting of the year on Monday, which followed the first day of spring, coming away with a new schedule of cleanup projects around town that welcomes plenty of volunteers.
Said committee President Alan Peabody, “We’re not trying to do the town’s job. We’re just putting the spit shine on the town.”
The Beautification Committee was founded in 1981, when architectural designer and gardener Frank Costantino heard about the Board of Selectmen’s plans to support a Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) idea to raze the middle of French Square to make way for a new road. Costantino filed a counter report stating that the road idea was “basically destroying that open space, in the center of the Center’s congested zone,” said Costantino.
“That approach would maybe get more vehicular circulation, but would destroy the character of the park that was there. I thought it was really a poor way of handling the problem and of handling the old Narrow Gauge Railroad Station stop.”
His counter proposal would replace the fenced-in square with a park. “It was unfortunately being used as a dog run, sealed off with wire fencing. At the time, it wasn’t a very attractive spot. The idea was to open it up as a quiet place for rest and relaxation. The concept was a community living room.”
The town liked his idea, which led to the creation of a Beautification Committee, composed of five members, plus Costantino as chair. Members of the Winthrop Gardening Club joined forces, and the likes of Norma Belcher and other experienced gardeners lent their knowledge of plants.
Its first planted site was the transformation of the Crest Avenue island, complete with a donated boat named after Sidvin Tucker. Another boat with “piers” fashioned from old telephone poles was set up at Beacon Circle, and dedicated to Winthrop icon Edward Rowe Snow. French Square took more than four years to complete, and was dedicated in August 1987.
“We continued our upgrading work on all public islands and spaces throughout the town for over 15 years, supported solely by donations and citizen fundraisers,” recalled Costantino. “We added members to the committee as we went, and regularly had eight to 10 members doing the hands-on work each season.”
They got strong high school students and football players to lug poles and cobblestones. “I had kids mix mortar, we had dropping in contractors and masons,” Costantino recalled.
When the boats eventually disintegrated, they were replaced with other decorations. Richard Vivolo, who died recently, and fellow shop teacher Sid Williams built planters, a few of which are still standing. The committee rallied churches, civic groups and students to get involved. “We had a cooperative Board of Selectmen and fantastic support from the DPW,” recalled Costantino.
As the original Beautification Committee aged, a business sponsorship program was launched in 1991, aided by Michael Carney and some Chamber of Commerce businesses, while the committee members continued to focus on French Square and the Highlands.
Costantino, whose business is on Pauline Street, is still sponsoring a site, but his role is more as consultant. Richard Honan took over as chair for years, and Alan and Betty Peabody joined about 10 years ago, until Alan was named chair last year when he retired from the airlines, and Betty became treasurer.
“I joined because of the satisfaction and the visual effect that one small group can accomplish,” said Alan Peabody. “I would have to say I am proud of every project that the committee undertakes but, if I have to single one out, it would be the four hours [on a beautiful fall day] that the volunteers committed to clean up a neglected Hannaford Park.”
Yep, volunteers. Not the DPW, not some state agency, not prisoners on work leave. It’s a quiet revolution that maybe hasn’t been picked up by many residents: that Winthrop is a cleaner town, thanks to an unsung committee of do-gooders. Well, not completely unsung: Betty Peabody received a beautification award from the Chamber years ago.
And now that it’s spring, it’s time for them to plot this year’s cleanup schedule. At the committee’s Monday meeting, they discussed a few projects and brainstormed some marketing ideas to add to their members.
For 2009, the committee is seeking an hour from all able-bodied residents and their families to spend a little time taking pride in their community, to participate in what the group calls “Guerrilla Work Parties”. They’ll supply the weedwackers, brooms, and bags, but volunteers must supply their own protective gloves.
Cleanup projects include:
On April 4, at 8 a.m., to kick off the season, they’ll target the Main Street/Saratoga Street bridge area. They’ll even bring coffee.
May 2: Hannaford Park – last year, they did one side of the park, and now they’ll take clear away the trash and brush on the other side. “We need a lot of people for Hannaford,” said Helen Honan. “It’s brutal.”
May 24: Deane Winthrop House, with the Winthrop Improvement and Historical Association.
June 20: Massa Playground on Beacon Street.
While the DPW does its share of maintenance, street sweeping and other cleanup, they can’t be everywhere, all the time. And with layoffs and aging pipes and maintaining the park lawns, there’s only so many hours in the day.
DPW Director Dave Hickey gets e-mails from the Beautification Committee with requests for help. “They’ll e-mail me saying, ‘By the way, we noticed a broken fence,’” said Hickey. “They mostly work very quietly behind the scenes. They are a super resource to the town of Winthrop.”
Anyway, it’s not really the town’s help they need – it’s the businesses and residents. They aren’t super martyrs, so they’re not shy about asking for more volunteers.
“Those flowers need to be watered once a day in midsummer,” worried Helen Honan, whose husband, Steve, is also on the committee. “You have your own yard to do, you have work; I understand people are busy. We try to do these cleanups one hour, two hours max, on a Saturday or a Sunday. We’re only so many people. We can’t do it all.”
Committee members said if everyone in town, whether property owner or renter, business owner or wandering teen, would at least pick up after themselves, around their homes and businesses, then their little group wouldn’t have to work as hard. Everyone can make a difference, they say. That’s what they say when they’re patient.
And sometimes they get annoyed. Board member Susan Gervasi wants to talk to the guy who regularly leaves a Heineken bottle at the bridge coming into town. Others seethe at weeds in curb cracks. Almost everyone on the committee, however, are upset at businesses that don’t maintain their storefronts.
“My biggest pet peeve are the business owners who do not clean up from door to curb or, for that matter, don’t take pride in their own business district,” said Alan Peabody.
“They blame it on staff cuts,” said Helen Honan. “People don’t want to hear it. That’s a lame excuse. It doesn’t cost anything to keep things clean.”
Meanwhile, the committee members do what they can, carrying trash bags while they walk around town. They know where to borrow the occasional chainsaw to take care of problem trees, like the crooked olive tree at Beacon Circle which which a resident requested help.
The group members are even willing to give advice to residents, such as gardening tips or how to clean a gutter. They’re thinking of starting a blog or a newsletter to provide tips, and considering posting reminders in the paper or on a sandwich board or at the hardware stores.
But…isn’t it somebody else’s job to clean the town? “That’s the flaw – the somebody is them,” said Costantino. “It comes down to inattention. Things can very quickly get very slummy looking and very messy. Maybe others can hire gardeners and landscapers. We’re a town with lesser resources. We have to do more of it ourselves.”
Plus, there’s a number of rewards to keeping the town clean.
“There’s a psyche to having a clean place,” said Betty Peabody. Added Gervasi, “It only helps the valuation of your property. The value increases. If you don’t have pride in your community, you don’t have anything.”
“It’s a mindset,” said Costantino. “It has to do with a commitment to the community that’s an extension of themselves. If they pick up a piece of trash, it will be less messy for themselves and others traveling though the course of a week. Everyone should be picking up around their own property, as the approach to life, on a day-to-day basis.”
“The naysayers say that you can’t do anything because the teenagers ruin it,” he said. “Well, I involved the teenagers, and they helped, and now they are parents. Teaching the kids is very important. We all have a vested interest in the town.”
He refers to one of the books he read during his college years that struck a strong chord in him and countless others: The Whole Earth Catalog. “It brought out the connections we all share, and the buzz phrase ‘To think globally, act locally.’ If we make our own towns a better place to live, hopefully that example will rub off on the larger community.”
Some businesses maintain an island. In 2008, the following sponsored areas around town, and are expected to renew their sponsorships: Amaral & Associaties: Belle Isle Bridge; Boyd and Conway Insurance, French Square; Century 21 Seacoast, Revere Street and Highland Avenue; Gentle Leaders Dog Walking Service, Dinsfriend Square; Cervizzi’s, Winthrop Center; MTS Landscaping, Beacon Circle; Frank Costantino, Metcalf Square; The Dreamlawn.com, Revere St. and Crest Ave.; Honan Sign, Main Street and Hermon Street; Luna Boutique, Yirrell Beach; Marr Real Estate, Crest and Highland; Rep. Bob DeLeo and Sen. Anthony Petrucelli, EB Newton School; Steve Honan, the Public Landing; Swetts Liquors, Winthrop Center; Terry Vazquez, Revere Street and Crest Avenue; Kelly Construction, Memory Square; Biggio Insurance, Magee’s Corner; Industrial Television Services, Main and Pleasant streets.
Others with barrels include: Five Petals Flower, Luna, Moonstruck Café, Pizza Center, The Crusty Crumpet, Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, Salon Luxo, Twist and Shake, and Gary’s Restaurant.
What they raise in sponsorships and fees goes toward more flowers, equipment such as brooms and rakes, maybe some coffee for early-morning volunteers.
Sponsorships are $35, and many businesses do their own plantings. The committee charges $100 for three plantings a year. The areas get a plaque with the sponsor’s name on it, which means year-round advertising.
Anyone who wants to start a new spot, or when one of the above spots open, the committee welcomes sponsors.