If you drive into Johnstown from the west, it’s hard to miss the flower boxes that line the streets. The boxes were originally made for a citywide celebration that has been long forgotten — but since 2006, the West End Improvement Group has been keeping them filled for the neighborhood all summer long.
“We started with 13 flower boxes that we had asked businesses in the West End to kind of adopt and take care of,” said Rose Howarth, who runs the all-volunteer organization.
The group raised some money to build more boxes and buy more flowers, and there are now more than 80 in the neighborhood.
Nearly every night in the summer, Howarth spends about two hours driving around, watering the boxes and the gardens the group has overseen for the last 10 years.
A lot that once only held the rubble of a burnt-down bar now sports flowers and a flagpole. A hillside leading up to train tracks on a major thoroughfare, once covered by Japanese knotweed, is now landscaped with shrubs and flowers.
And then there is the most recent addition and largest project — a community garden on the site of an abandoned lot that had been covered with cracked asphalt and weeds.
“We have 12 raised vegetable beds in here,” Howarth said, standing next to tomato plants heavy with fruit.
There are green and hot peppers in the garden, along with eggplants, green beans, Brussels sprouts and cabbages. All of them are lovingly watered and weeded by Howarth.
“And it’s all free for the taking,” said Howarth, who admits she doesn’t much care for vegetables. She said she will take a tomato once in a while. “Anyone can come here. No one is checking you out and saying ‘what are you taking?’ or anything like that.”
The plot also features 16 fruit trees and flower beds.
“People like it because there’s no pesticides or sprays or anything like that,“ said Howarth. She beamed as a passerby grabbed a few green beans and ate them as he walked away.
“We’re doing it because we live here; we live in the West End. Whatever my address is and whatever my lot size is that’s on my deed is not just my property, I live in this community,” Howarth said.
She said she hopes that as she gets older, others will take up the watering and weeding — but for now, she has no plans to slow down.