The community garden at 61st and Blackstone isn't physically a part of Hyde Park. Sitting just south of Midway Plaisance, the dividing line, it's in Woodlawn, the predominantly African-American neighborhood that stretches south to 67th Street and west to MLK Drive. But most of the gardeners live in Hyde Park, and both the garden and the oddly shaped building across Blackstone—the community and cultural center now called the Experimental Station—bear the imprint of their gray Gothic neighbor to the north. "We're both of Woodlawn and Hyde Park," says Connie Spreen, executive director of the Experimental Station. "We like to play with that boundary."
Woodlawn has been contested space for decades—ever since the U. of C. first marked the narrow strip between the Midway and 61st Street for eventual development in the 1950s, as part of its long-unspooling South Campus Plan. The bitter struggles over urban renewal and community identity continue to this day, and over the past year they've taken the form of an emotional dialogue over the fate of the ten-year-old 61st Street Community Garden. The gardeners are trying to reason with the University of Chicago as the university might have taught them—did teach some of them—to reason, but the university has remained unmoved.
In March 2009, Jack Spicer, a landscape architect and the garden's coordinator, got a letter from Sonya Malunda, associate vice president for the university's office of civic engagement. The letter was gracious, regretful even, but the news it delivered was a bomb: construction plans for a new Chicago Theological Seminary building at 60th and Dorchester required the use of the garden lot, which the university owns, as a staging area. Following the 2009 growing season, the garden's 140 plots would have to be cleared.
Since that letter arrived, Spicer, Spreen, and many of the 61st Street gardeners have been fighting a pitched battle to get the university to reconsider its plans. They don't dispute the institution's claim to the land— they've always known their tomatoes were rooted in borrowed ground—and if the university had reclaimed the lot for some higher purpose, such as a building, the gardeners say, they would be sad but could move on. But there's no compelling need to park a construction trailer on that particular lot, says Spreen—and she finds the university's stance on the matter "aggressive" and "disingenuous."
A dozen years ago the Board of Education used eminent domain to force the sale of a land parcel just west of Andrew Carnegie Elementary, at 1414 E. 61st Place. The land, occupied by the neighborhood's first community garden—perhaps 25 plots—was owned in part by Spreen and her husband, artist Dan Peterman, who also owned the adjacent multiuse building at 6100 S. Blackstone, which housed Peterman's studios, a bike co-op, an auto mechanic, a woodworking shop, and the offices of the Baffler magazine.
Spreen and Peterman talked to the university and worked out a handshake agreement to take over the 61st Street site, an empty lot, until the U. of C. needed it. The gardeners moved, and many more soon joined them.
In April 2001, a fire gutted 6100 S. Blackstone. Only the exterior walls were left standing. Five years of zoning negotiations followed, but the new facility, built with recycled materials and now called the Experimental Station, opened in the fall of 2006. It now houses, among other things, Backstory Cafe, the co-op Blackstone Bicycle Works, Peterman's studio, and an events space. In the winter it hosts the 61st Street Farmers Market, and about once a month Spreen fires up the wood-burning brick oven in the spacious kitchen for a day of community bread-baking.
During the long years of planning and reconstruction—years in which some of the tenants worked out of construction trailers on the lot—the garden held the community together. By last summer it was one of the largest in the city, comprising 140 ten-by-ten-foot plots, for which each gardener (or family of gardeners) paid a flat $40 per year. When the new Helmut Jahn-designed South Campus Chiller Plant was under construction a few years back the university asked the garden to move eight plots, and that was accomplished with little fuss. Other than that, says Spicer, the garden has flourished over the intervening years, fostering relationships and providing a safe urban space. Perhaps 80 percent of the gardeners are Hyde Parkers, while 20 percent live in Woodlawn, and 80 percent are white, while 20 percent are African-American. "We have a number of white Woodlawn gardeners and a number of African-American Hyde Parkers," notes Spicer. The garden is a "neighborhood" in and of itself, he says, whose demographics run counter to "a variety of stereotypes." And it's a neighborhood that, in his opinion, the University of Chicago doesn't know how to value.
Sonya Malunda's letter to Spicer expressed the school's appreciation for the garden's place in the community, along with the university's hope that a community garden could continue to be "a symbol of partnership for many years to come." To foster that continued partnership, the university offered to relocate the garden's topsoil, which Spicer estimates the gardeners have spent $50,000 to enrich over the years, to a new, yet-to-be-determined location.
Garden topsoil has been moved in bulk in the past, but it's not ideal. Kirsten Akre, who gardened with her family at 61st Street and runs the organic greenhouse at Kilbourn Park on the northwest side, explains that the pathways are marked by wood chips that would get scooped up too. "Mixing the wood chips with the soil will lead to a nitrogen depletion for several years while the wood chips are decomposed." There are also rocks and other debris to be accounted for, not to mention the possibly toxic urban soil below the topsoil, some of which inevitably would wind up in the same scoops.