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Making St. Louis a cleaner, greener, better place to live for 35 years

Originally published in the West End Word April 18, 2017. Reprinted with permission

By Eileen P. Duggan

After 35 years, Operation Brightside’s flowers are still blooming.


Mary Lou Green, shown here at the Brightside Demonstration Garden and Learning Center, has served as Brightside St. Louis executive director since 1990. Her mother, Lu Green, headed the organization upon its formation in 1982. Photo by Ursula Ruhl

St. Louis Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. founded Operation Brightside in spring 1982 along with campaign chairman G. Duncan Baumann, then-publisher of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Officially incorporated in July 1982, it was initially meant to address a 1981 survey in which citizens declared the No. 1 problem in the city was that it was too dirty.

Volunteers were required to sign up 10 more volunteers, each of whom would sign up 10 more volunteers, and so on. The 100,000-person strong group filled numerous trash bags with trash, litter and debris.

The famous Operation Brightside daffodils soon followed. Volunteers planted thousands of daffodil bulbs in street medians, at corners and alongside the exit ramps of Highway 40 (now Interstate 64). In spring, the resulting flowers created quite a colorful impression for drivers.

To lead the new program, Schoemehl recruited his sister, Lu Green, who was then an executive at Ralston Purina Co. He convinced her bosses to allow her to become a “loaned executive” for Brightside and pay her, too, “as only he can,” said Green’s daughter, Mary Lou Green, who has been executive director since 1990. Lu Green left in 1985 to take the program to other cities, and her daughter later applied for the job after a series of other directors.

Now called Brightside St. Louis, the organization depends on thousands of volunteers, some individuals and many associated with businesses, church groups, schools, gardening groups and college fraternities. The agency’s mission is to improve the quality of life in the community by educating, engaging and inspiring St. Louisans to make the region cleaner, greener and more environmentally sustainable.

Tom Brackman on

Tom Brackman with Brightside flowers planted near his home in the Central West End. Photo by Ursula Ruhl

Waterman Avenue resident Tom Brackman has been involved with Brightside since 1985. In fact, it was one of the reasons he moved from Clayton into the city. “I thought, ‘Oh, what a neat program,’” he said. As soon as he bought his home, he volunteered to help the organization. An official asked if he would be a block captain, and, of course, he agreed. “Then five minutes later, they called back and named me an Area Commander.” He served in that position until about three years ago.

As area commander, Brackman organized and helped the block captains in his territory, delivering flowers, signs, plastic bags and other supplies. He’s also helped out on citywide projects, including planting flowers in medians and working on naturescaping and Missouri Department of Conservation projects.

One of Brackman’s fondest Brightside memories involves a special project boarding up a house that had been burned “and was just sitting there as a hulk,” he said. His team boarded and painted the house and fixed up the front yard. “It went from spooky to looking like something was coming in.”

Over the past few years, Brightside has changed its focus from annual cleaning blitzes, held four Saturdays a year by region, to more neighborhood-focused schedules decided by block units, Mary Lou Green said. But it’s still about “neighborhood cleanup, working together,” she said.

In the beginning, the organization worked on cleaning alleys, where residents used to keep junk and other unsightly items. “They cleaned up so much stuff,” Brackman said. “I don’t know how many basements were cleaned out because of Operation Brightside. People now have a different ethic, and they keep alleys cleaner.”

Brightside’s other beautification programs include:

  • Brightside Demonstration Garden, a garden at Kingshighway Boulevard and Vandeventer Avenue featuring native Missouri plants and urban conservation practices. Established in 2011, the garden allows groups and individuals to learn about sustainability.
  • Flowers for Downtown, an annual spring planting of flowers along main downtown streets.
  • Blitz Blooms, which provides 200,000 free seedlings to neighborhood groups to plant in public areas each May.
  • Graffiti Eradication, which recruits high schoolers to work with neighborhood groups on graffiti removal and general cleanup.
  • Neighbors Naturescaping, neighborhood greening projects designed to improve public spaces.
  • Bring Conservation Home, which works in cooperation with the St. Louis Audubon Society to encourage native landscaping that creates habitats for birds and butterflies.

The Brightside Demonstration Garden. Photo by Ursula Ruhl

In 2015, Brightside took on the responsibility of recycling education and outreach. “The city put the blue Dumpsters out, and now it’s our responsibility to educate the public in properly managing their waste,” Green said. The agency also oversees a multimaterial recovery facility operated by Earth Circle Recycling at 1660 S. Kingshighway Blvd.

In addition to social media (@STLCityRecycles on Twitter) and the website, Brightside uses recycling ambassadors, residents who are willing to educate neighbors about recycling. “It’s helpful if people would say, ‘hey, would you break down your boxes?’ It’s great to be able to get the public engaged in that,” Green said.

Brightside celebrated with a two-day Earth Day Festival April 22-2, 2017 in Forest Park. On May 20, Brightside volunteers joined the City Park Department to plant flowers along Market Street and Tucker Boulevard downtown.

Brightside St. Louis is a public/private partnership, part city agency and part not-for-profit corporation. In 2009, it became a “tiny little division of the parks department,” Green said. Half of the agency’s funding comes from the city Community Development Agency and the rest comes from corporations, foundations and many individuals.

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