Bitter Harvest | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Bitter Harvest 

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By Joy Bergmann

The bulldozer rattled the dishes in my cupboard around eight o'clock last Thursday morning. It rumbled down the alley on its way to leveling the carefully tended vegetable gardens along the 4800 block of North Winthrop.

For the last two and a half years, I've watched elderly Asian gardeners from my kitchen window. Wearing straw hats or baseball caps, they fussed over more than a dozen little plots, stopping for nothing. If nature called, they'd relieve themselves behind a mound of dirt and return to their hoeing. I would slice my store-bought produce upstairs, looking at them with envy and admiration as they pulled bulbs of garlic from the ground.

Their gardens might not have looked like much, yet they were a tribute to immigrant pluck. The land was squatted and taken for cultivation when no one else seemed to care what happened there. A couple segments were irrigated by little aqueducts constructed from salvaged bricks. Compost stewed in plastic buckets previously used for "Pork Products," and seedlings were started in boxes made from scrap wood. Symmetrical sowing schemes yielded rows of onions, broccoli, peppers, herbs, bok choy, cabbage, and carrots. Each gardener took what he needed, conversing with the others in their native tongue. The fallow was hallowed ground, waiting for the neighborhood to turn around.

When the bulldozer left at four, the farmers descended on the property. One by one they came with tote bags. I grabbed my camera and joined them on the now black and muddy tract.

A man whose face was dotted with liver spots surveyed the scene, bent over, hands clasped behind his back. He peered into the dirt and every few steps would pick something out of a clod and put it in his bag. He didn't speak English. Shyly smiling and shaking his head, he refused my request to take his photo, though he did show me the contents of his bag: a handful of scrubby bulbs with little green shoots, ready to sprout with the first rays of springtime. He bowed slightly and disappeared down the alley.

A vigorous woman of at least 70 also didn't want her picture taken. She shook her head while rooting between the tracks left by the bulldozer. I felt like a photographer at a family funeral.

A tiny lady in a printed scarf and puffy coat picked over her plot. At first she too demurred. We sighed and nodded. Then she agreed to pose. She smiled for my camera, but once the lens was lowered, her shoulders dropped and her face showed signs of anger as well as resignation. Her arms spread out, in a broad gesture with empty hands.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joy Bergmann.


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