“We never imagined running a nonprofit, we were just planting petunia’s!” – Mary Ellen Pollina, Founder of the West End Beautification Association (WEBA)
I was raised to appreciate gardens and all the beauty they provide. Nearly all my childhood memories of my grandfather are intertwined with his magnificent yard, where he would take my little hand and tour me around his patches of pretty flowers and colorful vegetables. My favorite job was picking the tiny, black, grenade shaped seeds from his abundant 4 o’clock flower beds. His love of gardening carried on with my mother, who adored digging in the dirt until the sun went down. She planted rows of various flowers along the borders of our yard, and taught me the joy of a home-grown vegetable garden. It never occurred to me that I too might have a green thumb, until I moved to Long Beach. I surprised even myself when I decided to plant a raised-bed vegetable garden along the sunny side of my house. A perennial flower garden along the shady side soon followed; then came deck boxes and over-sized flower pots. I only stopped planting because I ran out of room!
Late this past summer, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a sweet postcard that really brightened my day. It was from the West End Beautification Association (WEBA) and it contained a gracious message that my gardening efforts were appreciated. Curious, I set out to find out who WEBA was and what they do. That led me to a chat with WEBA founders Mary Ellen Pollina and Ed Glister, who shared with me their mission to make the West End a greener neighborhood.
Mary Ellen grew up in the Bronx and moved to Long Beach in 2007. “I didn’t see a garden until I was 20 years old,” she admitted over coffee and donuts from the Dough Hut. Her idea for WEBA took root in 2011 while waiting on Beech Street for the Memorial Day Parade. Looking around, she was simply appalled. “Tree beds were ankle-deep in litter and tight with weeds.” As politicians marched past it all, she thought to herself “Are you kidding me?” But instead of shaking her head and going home, she decided she would do something about it. She says, “I just knew that the West End was a special community that wasn’t being nurtured.”
With local friend, Judy Moran, she planned a city beautification day and recruited volunteers to sweep streets and plant petunias. Not long after, Judy taught her about a tradition in Ireland called Tidy Day, where towns compete for the title of Best Tidy Town—and with the spirit of that event in mind, they organized another clean up the following year, this time, right before Irish Day. Mary Ellen recalled, “Everyone came out, collected broken bottles…I remember seeing Denise Ford out there sweeping.” The AOH (Ancient Order of Hibernian’s) donated $750 to purchase mums, which they planted in the tree beds along Beech Street.
As is the case with many stories I’ve written thus far, Superstorm Sandy put Mary Ellen’s efforts and her mission on hold. But one day, a surprise knock on her door provided the jump-start she needed.
“Ed found me,” Mary Ellen describes their first meeting with a bright smile, “he just showed up on my doorstep.” Judy had moved away because of the storm, and Ed’s timing was perfect.
Ed Glister, originally from Queens, also arrived in Long Beach in 2007. He too shared the desire to make Long Beach a prettier place. Ed confessed to being colorblind, with zero knowledge of plants—but he loved to pull weeds! His background as a consultant—building metrics and evaluating them—was a nice complement to Mary Ellen’s passions. During his professional career, Ed spent time working with NYC Mayor Ed Koch, and had experience evaluating issues and putting plans into action.
They formed WEBA as a nonprofit, and their committee—which meets once a month— is made up of people Ed calls “the 3 C’s” — Civic, City, and Chamber. One of their members is a master gardener named Neal Montego, who’s been pivotal in their efforts to beautify the city.
The word “beautification” is an umbrella term for a wide range of community development projects—and extends way beyond planting pretty petals. Ed calls it “an action that produces smiles, raises real estate value, and encourages people to do the right thing.”
Over the past few years, WEBA has kicked-off and collaborated on several initiatives, including the West End Window Art Walk and Let’s Paint—the ticket-booth painting event. Ed helped drive the beautification efforts of the beach entrances and acts as another set of eyes to help the city maintain them. This past summer, he spotted an invasive vine (that grows 60 feet a year) at the entrance to Arizona beach. It was taken care of by the city and is now being monitored.
Another part of their mission is to recognize West End businesses that put special care into making their facades look especially appealing. They point to The Saloon as a good example of a visually pleasing storefront. Those that make the grade receive window stickers to display. In 2016, 22 businesses received the WEBA sticker of approval.
Keeping the city clean and looking professional is a big challenge in the West End; litter is a constant battle to fight. Pizza plates, Miller bottles, and Marlboro cigarette boxes remain the top three offenders. Cigarette butts continue to be a problem everywhere, especially on the beach, where people are continually disrespectful of the recent No Smoking policy. Ed says, “It’s all about educating people about what laws are in place.”
WEBA is currently setting their sights on designing and expanding projects that will create community focal points. One of their early initiatives—the West End Community Garden—recently had a lighting and irrigation system installed. During the summer, residents are welcome to come by and pick herbs and vegetables as needed.
Mary Ellen is especially enthusiastic about giving new life to the planters on Oceanview. She would like to see them transformed into iconic pieces of art—something you would take your picture next to. She and Ed are currently working with John Mirando, the new Commissioner of Public Works, on rebuilding them with wells to retain water. The Long Beach Arts Council is also brainstorming ideas on how to decorate them.
As for the postcards which first led me to this story; it was an idea that began in 2015 to recognize residents’ efforts at beautifying the West End. At the end of each summer, Mary Ellen and Ed take a tour of the state streets, jotting down addresses of homeowners who made a worthy effort. In both 2015 and 2016 they sent out 300 postcards. In 2017, the number jumped to 500.
“There is a post-Sandy renaissance going on in the city. There’s a lot of raised homes, but people are greening them up they best they can with limited amounts of space. I’m really proud how the West End has emerged after the storm,” says Mary Ellen.
On their list for future projects are: landscaping the Georgia Avenue Water Park, proposing a resident rain barrel system, putting a water feature in the community garden, creating more pocket parks, and installing a Welcome to the West End sign at the triangle by New York Avenue.
The white plastic planters you’ve walked past in front of Shine’s, the Knights of Columbus, Petrey’s, and Pammy Cakes were all gifts from WEBA. Mary Ellen and Ed would love to see more flowers planted in the tree beds on Beech Street, but the problem is they are so easily trampled on. The beds need fencing—and yes, that’s on their list too.
“There is potential here to do a lot with a small group of people,” says Ed. And as Margaret Meade famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”
If you’re a gardener, love to weed, want to pitch in on a project, or have an idea to beautify the city; Mary Ellen and Ed would love to hear from you. Winter may be approaching, but this is the time to plan for next spring.
Some ideas for volunteering include: bringing plants to elderly neighbors and/or helping them water and weed; volunteering to be a Beautification Block Captain and notifying neighbors of the street cleaning schedule; growing a tomato plant; putting out a flowerpot; helping with their outreach on social media; connecting them to resources; or donating money, supplies or time—collectively all of this makes a big difference. Start thinking about how you can green up your own property next spring and earn the WEBA postcard in 2018. There are so many ways you can make a difference!
Mary Ellen and Ed are also thinking about re-introducing the Tidy Day initiative to the city calendar. I, for one, LOVE that idea. Beautification is one of my passions, so I’ll keep you posted on developments and initiatives in the future.
The WEBA Website and Facebook pages are works-in-progress, so the best way to contact Mary Ellen or Ed right now is via email. You can reach Mary Ellen at email@example.com and Ed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please feel free to post your comments and share your ideas about ways we can beautify Long Beach. Next spring/summer I look forward to seeing your gardens, window boxes, and flowerpots blooming!