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Neighbors mend fences in Portsmouth, Virginia

  • Subject: [cg] Neighbors mend fences in Portsmouth, Virginia
  • From: Don Boekelheide dboekelheide@yahoo.com
  • Date: Tue, 15 Aug 2006 19:25:40 -0700 (PDT)

The Virginia-Pilot, Virginia
August 14, 2006

Mending a fence, bonding neighbors in Portsmouth
The Virginian-Pilot
PORTSMOUTH - At 6 p.m. on a recent Sunday, it's still
too hot to want to stray far from an air conditioner.

But a muster of Olde Towne residents has shown up
outside an open warehouse to scrape the rust off
panels of wrought-iron fencing.

When all 30 or so panels have been restored, a
180-foot antique fence will embellish a quiet park on
a corner of one of the neighborhood's gateways.

Washington Street park is an open space from another
time, just like this neighborhood of homes dating back
to the 18th century. And it's just one of the
community spots that keep the civic league's
beautification committee dreaming up garden projects
and hunting for old fountains, park benches and other
landscaping props.

John Joyce, chairman of the committee, spotted the
wrought-iron fence panels two or three years ago at an
antiques store near Richmond. He walked away

from it reluctantly, not knowing if everyone would
agree it belonged in Olde Towne and knowing the
hurdles of approval would go beyond the civic league.

It's not like Olde Towne's beautification chairman
doesn't have his own landscape to worry about.

Joyce, a family doctor, has one of the larger gardens
in the neighborhood, a healthy lot next to a Greek
Revival -style home that is closing in on its century

The weeds there sometimes grow a little taller while
he's out clipping shrubs or pulling weeds at one of
the neighborhood's four parks, though.

Fortunately, it's a fast-growing affliction in Olde

Over the last four years, the beautification committee
has grown from a handful of civic league members to
about 20.

And it grows by one or more people every time members
meet or gather to work.

In the early days, the first members had organized
around the problem of litter and dog walkers who
didn't use pooper scoopers.

One by one, they started taking on the neighborhood's
parks and public spaces.

"I think it just got to be the hip committee to be
on," said Jeannette Rainey, another member.

The Washington Street park, at one time, was basically
taken over by too many trees, including a huge cedar
that covered an entire sidewalk and blocked the park's
lantern light.

"It started out as a Christmas tree put in the corner
of the park," Rainey said.

Over the years, the tree "started engulfing the whole
park," she said.

Then Hurricane Isabel came along and settled the
matter, taking down the cedar and other trees - and
sparking a revival of the public space.

"In one year, that park had a face-lift," Rainey said.

It became something of a passion for a lot of the
committee members, including Joyce.

The committee has a three-part master plan and has
planted about 40,000 flower bulbs that provide a
spring flower show between the Washington Street and
North Street parks.

And Joyce couldn't stop thinking how great the
wrought-iron fence would look at the Washington Street

He showed photos of it at civic league meetings and
finally went back and paid about $4,800 of his own
money to buy it, figuring it would be easy enough to
sell if the fence didn't win approval.

A new wrought-iron fence would cost at least four
times that amount, Joyce said. He estimates this fence
is about 125 years old.

"Overall, it is in very good shape, to be sitting out
all those years," he said.

When he took it to the city's Commission of
Architectural Review, a couple of members didn't think
a park should be fenced in, he said.

"I said 'I don't know - historically, they all had
fences. So did all the schools. So did the
courthouses, the churches. That was a sign of public

Most people liked it, he said.

The fence is about 3 feet tall with rounded finials.
Joyce described it as a fence typical of the Victorian
period but welcoming and not too tall.

The fence got its green light, and the league began
selling $250 engraved plaques that will help pay for
the project.

On this particular Sunday, the committee is holding
the fourth in a series of what's been pegged "Get Off
the Fence" parties.

About 20 people show up, a number most neighborhoods
would be glad to see at a civic league meeting.

"It's because it's an Italian dinner," someone jokes,
referring to the feast they will all gather for later
at Joyce's house.

The work site is a warehouse that Joyce shares with
two neighbors. It's serious space for their collective
hobbies of woodworking, restoration of classic cars
and, in Joyce's case, antique frames and mirrors.

Two of the wrought-iron panels have been laid across
saw horses. Dressed in various degrees of old paint
and gardening clothes, the volunteers squeeze in
wherever they see a spot to work.

For one person, the job would be as much fun as
scrubbing the Seawall with a tooth brush, but with
their numbers, the work takes on the feel of a block

"Camaraderie is half of it," Joyce said.

Snippets of conversation float over the swishing of
wire brushes and the whir of power tools. They talk
about whose brush works the best and who went to the
opera. They talk about the heat and about someone's
trip to Ireland.

A couple walks up and someone yells, "Hey, our

Whoops and cheers fill the air for Fred Genera, a Shea
Terrace resident who has so far spent more than 220
hours welding and making repairs to the fence panels.

The beautification committee is a group unusual in its
numbers and devotion, said Irv Lindley, president of
the civic league.

A big part of the civic league's mission is
preservation of the neighborhood. And the enthusiasm
on the beautification committee goes beyond the
restoration of individual homes to the streets and
public spaces of Olde Towne, he said.

The American Community Gardening Association listserve is only one of ACGA's services to community gardeners. To learn more about the ACGA and to find out how to join, please go to http://www.communitygarden.org

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