Black Squirrel Home and Garden Walk, Park Place Porch Fest, and Neighborhoods Taking Charge

Councilman Kenny Tompkins

Councilman Kenny Thompkins visits Black Squirrel Garden Walk.

Councilman Kenny Thompkins visits Black Squirrel Garden Walk.

Last Saturday, July 23, my wife Terry and I had the pleasure of experiencing two of Niagara Falls’ newest events: The Black Squirrel Home and Garden Walk and the Park Place Porch Fest.

It was refreshing to participate in both.

On 12th Street and Memorial Parkway – the Black Squirrel and Garden Walk- we encountered spectacular lush gardens, none of which showed signs of this summer’s unending dry spell. Each one gained praise from Terry, who is has an amazing green thumb of her own.

Not only did the Black Squirrel Home and Garden Walk offer a glimpse into homeowners’ beautiful landscapes, but they offered information on the history of this hidden gem of a neighborhood.

There were several associated events that took place in conjunction with this self-guided tour, including demonstrations on using herbs for cooking and a guided tour of Oakwood Cemetery.

Thompkins at Porch Fest. He commends the good neighbors who put on events without government subsidies.

Thompkins at Porch Fest. He commends the good neighbors who put on events without government subsidies.

The Porch Fest in the historic Park Place district was also a perfect way to spend a hot, sunny day. We sat in the shaded refuge of the homes’ expansive porches, listened to live music and enjoyed the company of other city residents while sipping frosty beverages.

What made these events amazing wasn’t simply the vibrant gardens or the hospitality. It was that each of these neighborhoods strongly reflect a powerful movement that could spur the revitalization of Niagara Falls.

Here are city residents who decided to make a difference in reviving sections of town in which they live, without use of city funds.

Ruth Cooper, a 12th Street resident, leads the Black Squirrel Block Club which organized the garden walk.

As she explained, Black Squirrel is an ongoing movement to stop blight in a neighborhood that has unfairly been perceived as “feral and dangerous.”


“Some have taken advantage of this perception as justification for using the area as a ‘dumping ground.’,” Mrs. Cooper explained. “Unscrupulous landlords and benign neglect has added to what people believe is occurring in the core of our city,”

The purpose of the Black Squirrel is, Mrs Cooper said in a press release, to “reconnect people with the downtown core and dispel those beliefs.”

Points along the garden walk were punctuated with doors salvaged from demolished homes and repurposed as markers which also told the story of the neighborhood’s history.

At Andrea and Tina Galyn’s house, we enjoyed a history lesson and some delicious home-brewed sun tea. The women are new to the neighborhood and did extensive work to restore their home, as we could see through a pictorial journey of which they proudly shared.

“We had a before and after scrapbook to talk to people about our renovation. We also had free plans in the backyard to make a DIY birdbath that is on display in our garden,” said Mrs. Galyn. “As if we hadn’t gone overboard enough, we gave out free herbs and made a display about the price of goods and the nature of American society in 1908, the year our home was built. It might have been a little overkill (laughter).”


Mrs. Galyn reiterated the impact that the Black Squirrel Home and Garden Walk had on visitors.

“We showed that there are good quality people who live downtown and who are restoring and improving these grand old homes and gardens,” she said. “I think we succeeded in doing that and in possibly attracting new people to join us. We also had several people who do not currently live in Niagara Falls asking about properties that might be for sale in our neighborhood.

“My favorite moment was when a lady who grew up on our street and moved to the suburbs said that she was so proud of how far the neighborhood has come and that she might consider retiring downtown.”

In addition to the garden walk, in the short time since its inception the Black Squirrel has hosted a perennial sale, entered a float in the Community Memorial Day Parade (which took third place!), and entered the “Queen of the Black Squirrel” in the Lewiston GardenFest’s container contest.

“With the help of the Niagara Falls Police and Fire Departments, Lewiston Garden Club and the Niagara Falls Public Library, a ‘plant library’ has been established to sustain current plantings and help with expansion to additional blocks,” Mrs. Cooper said. “Plantings were done at five houses that otherwise would have been barren of landscaping.”

In addition, the committee created flower baskets for residents who might not be able to afford such luxuries.

According to Mrs. Cooper who has lived in the neighborhood with her husband John for 10 years, “The Black Squirrel committee members are looking forward to holding some workshops for new gardeners, specifically our gardeners-in-training. Landlords and renters have expressed an interest not only in flower gardening, but vegetable gardening. We will be connecting with other people and potentially holding some fundraisers to do a mass planting of bulbs throughout our neighborhood and local park.”


One major concern in the neighborhood is the ash borer an insect that feeds on Ash trees and kills them.

“This is a problem …. in neighborhoods throughout the city,” Mrs. Cooper said. “We will be connecting with our state representatives within the next two weeks to see what we can do from the state level to clear out
dead trees and replace with big trees.”

On Park Place, Rick Crogan and his husband Michael Murphy were key organizers of the Porch Fest event.

“We wanted to accomplish several things,” said Mr. Murphy. “First, we wanted to showcase the neighborhood and local musicians at a time when many people who have not come downtown would actually be here for the garden walk. Second, we wanted to get the creative class looking at a neighborhood with a ton of potential. Finally, we wanted to have a way to say thank you to our friends and neighbors for taking pride in Niagara Falls.”

According to Mr. Murphy, three of the historic homes opened their porches, featuring six musicians. In addition, two of the neighborhoods churches showcased their architecture and beautiful music.

“Zach Carr and Jonah Crull wrapped up the day with an amazing set in front of our house,” he added. “We had an impromptu jam session during our post fest BBQ.”

With Mr. Crogan being the key organizer for two of Niagara Falls’ finest music festivals, the Niagara Arts and Music Festival in June and the upcoming Boots, Brews, and Bacon Festival at the end of September, it wasn’t a surprise that the Porch Fest included top quality local music.


In addition to the open porches, Mr. Murphy commended neighbor Mary Leahy, who he said was instrumental in organizing a neighborhood clean-up prior to the event, and Nina Manzare from DPW, who worked with the neighborhood’s block club to get lawns on abandoned properties mowed and to collect the trash gathered during the clean-up.

Interest in participating appears to be growing. There were residents on Whirlpool, 5th Street, and 4th Street who, although outside the ‘district,’ seemed thrilled to be a part of the event.

The Black Squirrel Home and Garden Walk may be expanding next year to include other blocks, specifically Fort Avenue, across Portage Road and the 7th Street and 5th Street areas.

In my role of councilman, it’s heartening to see residents like the Coopers, Galyns, and the Crogan-Murphys who want to take a lead in revitalizing their own neighborhoods and making a difference.

These are people who aren’t waiting for the city to come to their aid. They are finding creative ways in which to rebuild and attract people to these neighborhoods and let them visualize the opportunities of living a small city like ours.

The biggest takeaway I learned from this experience is it doesn’t take government funding to host wonderful city events, to create oasis-like gardens in the middle of the city, or build sustainable neighborhoods that reflect the vibrant and diverse culture in which we have here in Niagara Falls.

In fact, Terry and I are inspired to consider extending the walk to Deveaux next summer.

I hear that both neighborhoods are considering Christmas-themed events and you can be sure that I’ll be headed down to see what’s in store.

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