June 12 2013 12:00 AM

Evergreen Cemetery fix-up takes 'Adopt a Park' to the next level


There are two kinds of people in this world. One sees a knocked-over trash barrel in the park and calls Lansing Parks Director Brett Kaschinske to complain. The other kind picks the barrel back up.

Make that three kinds. When Ken Achtenberg noticed that the entrance to Lansing’s Evergreen Cemetery was in bad shape, the retired veterinarian from Haslett rounded up community support and raised over $2,000 to fix the gate and put in new trees and flowers, at no cost to the city. Last Monday night, the Lansing City Council honored Achtenberg and his supporters as a model of grass-roots resident support for the parks.

“Ken didn’t just have an idea, he got it funded,” Kaschinske said. “Those are the things that help build community, for residents to get involved with their public spaces.”

The project started last fall, when Achtenberg invited his wife on a “big date.”

“We cruised around looking for a cemetery plot,” he said with a grin. “That was real popular.”

Soon they were accidentally having fun. After looking at all of the municipal and for-profit cemeteries in the Lansing area, the couple fell in love with the rolling hills of Evergreen Cemetery, on the semi-rural east fringe of town at Mt. Hope Avenue and Aurelius Road.

If not for the sign, the casual visitor wouldn’t know Evergreen was a cemetery. A generous spread of trees and open water shelters the gravesites and gives them a zone of privacy. Resident turkeys strut past the gate and deer bound in all directions.

“As you come in, there isn’t a whole bunch of stuff staring you in the face,” Achtenberg said.

But the cast iron gates were twisted apart, giving the unwelcome impression that zombies had recently made an escape. The stone pillars were crumbling. Gnarled shrubs were overgrown and split with age.

Knowing that the front gate would be the door to his digs for quite a while, Achtenberg decided to take pre-ownership.

Kaschinske said the funky entrance was one of “many other” priorities for the parks department, and even when his crew got around to it, he would never have been able to “take care of it to this magnitude.”

To Achtenberg, Evergreen isn’t the kind of park you improve with a picnic table.

“It’s more hallowed than that,” he said. “To keep it nice is expected of us as a culture, that we respect these places. It’s not just a park.”

As soon as the winter frost burned away, Achtenberg rounded up a team of volunteers and moonlighting pros. All of them came through with free or steeply discounted goods and services.

Bill Bannish of Bannish Welding cut up and re-welded the twisted gates for free. One estimate for fixing the crumbling stone pillars came in at $2,500, but Tim Eastman II, a historic restorer, spent a week on the job and charged only $300.

The glory of the new entranceway is a set of four columnar pear trees about 20 feet tall, much bigger than Achtenberg expected when he asked for a deal from Discount Trees. Estes Leadley Funeral Homes picked up the $950 tab for the trees, which bloomed magnificently last month. The pear trees will keep their vertical sweep and won’t spread into the driveway.

“The community blew me away,” Achtenberg said. “Every time I asked for something, they always responded.”

Aaron Perrault of Dumpsters on Demand spent a day pulling stumps and helping with the landscaping.

Achtenberg’s family and a neighbor, Barb Schmidt, provided free labor. Van- Atta’s Greenhouse, Cottage Gardens and Stiles Landscaping came through with flowers, shrubs, mulch, topsoil, fertilizer and even a supply of coyote urine to keep the squirrels and deer from munching the new rose bushes and Japanese maples. Heather LaFave, a member of the Friends of Lansing Historical Cemeteries, became a dedicated waterer.

Alan Wolfe, who coordinates Jewish burials for East Lansing’s Congregation Shaarey Zedek, picked up the rest of the tab for the improvements.

Kaschinske said hundreds of people are helping to take care of Lansing city parks, but he urged people to contact his office first. Under Lansing’s Adopt-a-Park program, entire parks or parts of parks can be adopted by individuals, school or church groups, businesses, nonprofits, or anyone else.

Grass-roots parks projects in Lansing range from an annual one-day blitz by swarms of K-12 students from New Covenant Christian Church (this spring, they cleaned and mulched Moores Park) to 20 years of quiet planting and weeding by 84-year-old Beulah Voorheist in Scott Sunken Gardens, next to Cooley Gardens.

Kaschinske didn’t want to single out any particular parks that need love. The parks department networks with local neighborhood organizations, he said, and residents can inquire there.

“Boy,” he said, laughing. “I’d rather not pick just one. People will say, ‘What about this and this?’ There’s a lot of need out there.”

Kaschinske said the parks budget has held “about the same” in recent years, but with labor and material costs going up, that amounts to a relentless squeeze.

“There are studies that say the value of a volunteer hour is over $20,” Kaschinske said. “Multiply that by hundreds of volunteers, and these people are incredibly valuable to us.

People or groups interested in adopting a park
Call Lansing Parks and Recreation
(517) 483-4277