1,000 volunteers beautify Youngstown in aftermath of explosion

Correspondent photo / Sean Barron Jayne Gregory and her grandchildren, Leah Arquilla, 5, and Dane Arquilla, 9, add flowers to a large flower box on Fifth Avenue near Youngstown State University on Saturday. as part of the 27th annual Streetscape event to beautify the city. Jayne Gregory and her grandchildren, Leah Arquilla, 5, and Dane Arquilla, 9, add flowers to a large flower box on Fifth Avenue near Youngstown State University on Saturday as part of the 27th annual Streetscape event to beautify the city.

YOUNGSTOWN — The description Dane Arquilla used regarding a planting process parallels the overriding reason he and so many others worked collaboratively to beautify much of the city mere days after tragedy marred it.

“First, my grandma digs a hole, and I take it out of the planter pot, then she puts the dirt back in and we smack it down,” Dane, 9, of Cortland, said.

Dane, his grandmother, Jayne Gregory of Cortland, and his sister, Leah Arquilla, 5, worked together to add beauty, color and flowers to a planter box near Fifth and West Rayen avenues. Specifically, the trio converted the nondescript box into a medley of petunias, begonias and creeping Jenny.

Their volunteerism also was part of the 27th annual Streetscape event Saturday morning in many parts of the city that was intended to bring people together to uplift the look and feel of Youngstown through its many neighborhoods.

Hosting the three-hour beautification effort, themed “CityScape – Greenery & Good Vibes,” was Youngstown CityScape.

For many, the gathering also brought a welcomed and strong sense of empowerment and joy days after Tuesday afternoon’s explosion at the downtown 12-story Realty Tower building that killed one person and injured several others.

Before the volunteers got to work, a moment of silence was held to honor Akil Drake, a Chase Bank employee who lost his life in the blast. He was 27.

Dane, his sister and his grandmother were united in their enjoyment of making a small slice of the Fifth Avenue corridor near Youngstown State University more aesthetically pleasing, Gregory said.

“I thought this was one of the things the kids can do. They garden at home, so this is something they could do to make the city pretty,” she said.

Among those working near Gregory and her two grandchildren was Vicki Thompson of Poland, who works for TPMA in the Youngstown Business Incubator. She spent part of the time removing dead ornamental grass from near the street “to do something to make a difference,” she said.

An estimated 1,000 volunteers weeded, mulched, planted foliage and tended close to 70 sites across the city that included parts of downtown, the Smoky Hollow Memorial, YSU, the Madison Avenue Expressway, Wick and Crandall parks, parts of Andrews and Belmont avenues, Amedia Plaza, space near the Paramount Theater building, Spring Commons, the hill outside of Choffin Career and Technical Center and the fire station memorial near West Federal Street and Fifth Avenue.

The volunteer base had a strong Premier Bank representation. More than 25 employees and family members weren’t shy about rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty for the greater good.

“We come down here to support the city and do community support,” Lou Joseph, Premier’s senior vice president of real estate and facilities, said.

On Saturday, a large contingent of Premier Bank personnel tended to dirt spots outside of the Western Reserve Transit Authority bus station, as well as in a nearby center island along West Federal Street.

Joseph expressed sorrow about Tuesday’s blast at Realty Tower, but tempered that feeling with a resolve to go forward in the face of tragedy.

“We have to keep moving, and what better way to do so than to do this?” said Joseph, who also serves on Youngstown CityScape’s board.

Lots of weeding, mulching and planting took place along a corner of East Federal and Boardman streets across from Penguin City Brewing Co., courtesy of Ryan Day, Michelle Sisler and others who work for Hynes Industries in Austintown, along with their family members.

“Our business has a charity committee, and we saw a great opportunity for our team to volunteer,” said Day, who also was sprucing up a stone border surrounding the space as petunias, azaleas, coral bells and other flower varieties were planted.

The group of volunteers from Hynes Industries originally was set to work near Eastern Gateway Community College, but because of Tuesday’s disaster, they were relocated to the area farther from the explosion, Sisler said, adding that Youngstown CityScape’s main priority was to ensure everyone would be safe.

Sharon Letson, CityScape’s executive director, said that in the tragedy’s aftermath, she initially struggled with whether to move forward with the Streetscape project. Nevertheless, the overwhelming response from volunteers and the community at large favored doing so, because people “wanted something positive and to come together as a community,” she said, adding, “No question, our community has been shaken by this.”

Another valuable aspect of the planting effort was to uplift and help the downtown business community feel added love and support because it has been through a series of trials and tribulations over the last several years — most notably the pandemic, continual road closures and, most recently, the explosion, Letson said.

“It’s about support, a sense of place and economic development more than flowers,” she said..

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