Dave Gilbert of Toledo examines his garden on Bellevue Road.
When Dave Gilbert was homeless, living in his truck, he had no place to plant kindness.
Now a tenant in an apartment complex in Toledo, Mr. Gilbert cultivates friends and flowers.
His flower beds garner attention, coaxing tenants outside where they tend to the gardens and to each other. Talking, sharing, laughing, planting, weeding.
Mr. Gilbert, who said he drove a couple million miles during his truck-driver work years, travels much less these days. Injured on the job, he has several health issues. He gets a feel-good kick as he shows off posy-packed patches of pride. Call it community curb appeal.
As visitors toured the flower beds, neighbors praised Mr. Gilbert for transforming sections — front, side, back — of the apartment building from bleak to blockbuster. Motorists notice. They shout “nice flowers” or “looking good.”
Enchanting, actually. The place pops with color from free-flowing flower beds, accented with whimsical yard ornaments and melodic wind chimes.
At night, solar-powered figurines sparkle with radiant splendor, shifting rainbow shades of color — red to amber to violet to blue to green.
Before dawn, before the light show ends, Ruth Ann Palmer pours herself a cup a coffee, steps outside her nearby apartment, and soaks up the wonders of nature — and the wonders of what people can accomplish when they work together. “Each day, each week, a little bit more of the gardens bloom,” Ms. Palmer said. “More people take notice. It brings people together.”
She said she no longer stays put in her apartment, keeping to herself.
Neither do other neighbors, including Marqueita Fench, who is tickled to take part in tending to the flower beds at the apartment complex along Bellevue Road near Douglas Road. “I used to stay indoors all the time, but I don’t anymore. I have a reason to come outside and be with people.
“It would help, yes it would, if all of us would pitch in and do something like this across Toledo,” she said. “Look around. This is something we can be proud of for taking part in making this nice scenery.”
She also said, “This has helped us get to know each other, and now we watch out for each other and we have a tight-knit community here.”
Tenants tsk-tsk when people pitch rubbish into the rows of soon-to-bloom sunflowers or onto saucer-sized day lilies. Mr. Gilbert says thank you to those who put trash in bins.
He’s more than a Mr. Green Jeans.
Mr. Gilbert tries to extend neighborly unity. He challenges troubled young people who whine, “Woe is me. I’ve had a tough life.”
Fiddlesticks. That’s no excuse for bad behavior, Mr. Gilbert said, noting he can match, and top, anything they throw at him. “I’ve had a tough life too, but I do not do drugs, I do not smoke, I do not drink. If I could find my way back, so can they.”
Neighbors Ruth Ann Palmer, left, and Marquetta Finch, right, are delighted to help tend the garden.
He said his father was a drinker, prompting numerous evictions, even from subsidized housing. You can’t afford booze and rent, said Mr. Gilbert, who, after a run-in with the law, skipped high school.
In later years: children, work, divorce, unemployment. Life on the streets, in shelters, in his truck.
Depression nearly killed him, he said. World weary, pain gripping body and soul, he swallowed pills in a suicide attempt.
He earlier had asked his girlfriend to take care of his dear dogs if something happened to him. Suspecting the worst, she dialed 911, he said.
“She saved my life, and today, when I look at the beauty in my world, I am glad she did. I still have aches and pains, but now I have something to live for, my garden, my friends. I am the happiest now I have ever been. I get comments all the time, people saying the flowers look good. It lifts your spirits.”
Next-door neighbor Theresa Poland said the flourish of flowers inspires her. “It gives me goosebumps. I have a black thumb. I’m glad he has a green thumb. He has shown us the unity flowers can bring to people, how it opens the goodness in people’s hearts. We thank God. We thank him.”
"Looking at something beautiful every day lifts your spirits and puts a smile on your face," he says.
Mr. Gilbert, 60, who grew up in the north end, has seen negative changes in Toledo’s landscape.
Flowers alone won’t flush out Toledo’s blight.
Toledo should shape up so people don’t ship out; the city should attract businesses and jobs; the city needs neighbors who care about one another, who have pride in how their properties look, he said. It takes a community to not only raise a child but to create a safe environment where young people can thrive, not just survive, he said. Looking at something beautiful every day lifts your spirits and puts a smile on your face, and when you feel better about where you live, he said, you feel better about your family, your friends, your neighbors.
As Mr. Gilbert and his neighbors have discovered, a community can bloom when people connect in positive ways with one another.
Spread the word.
Contact Janet Romaker at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6006.