Community gardens beautify urban space, but some seek to transform urban society | Feature | Chicago Reader

Community gardens beautify urban space, but some seek to transform urban society 

Community organizers connect politics with plant care.

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click to enlarge At the Semillas de Justicia garden in Little Village, neighbors cultivate crops on a former industrial storage site.

At the Semillas de Justicia garden in Little Village, neighbors cultivate crops on a former industrial storage site.

Jordan Campbell

Near the border of North Lawndale and West Garfield Park a mountain range of wood chips piled more than five feet high stretches over 1,800 square feet of a once vacant lot. In a few weeks, a Bobcat will come through to level the chips as the lot continues its transformation into a community garden. Across the street another smaller lot is undergoing a similar metamorphosis, although it is in a more advanced state: Tree stumps mark the perimeter, some painted with red, black, and green designs; tires to be turned into flower beds are stacked neatly nearby; a dune of brown, turfy coconut husks waits to be spread across the land to improve the quality of the soil.

This gardening initiative is led by W.D. Floyd, founder of 360 Nation, a community organization that runs an after-school program in partnership with nearby Sumner Elementary School to teach kids self-reliance, black political history, and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) skills. In 2017 360 Nation began preparing one of the vacant lots, which had been overgrown by six-foot-high grass and littered with empty liquor bottles and syringes, for a garden. Last year, they expanded the work to the second lot, after the demolition of a half-built house that had loomed there for years.

"This was an environmental dumping ground," says Floyd, 36, who's also a PhD student at UIC. "The city's trash was dumped over there . . . you had children coexisting next to piles of garbage."

Twenty-five years ago, an illegal construction waste dump towered as high as a six-story building right across the street from Sumner. (The history and fallout from this dump and others like it in black residential neighborhoods on the west side was recently chronicled in USA Today's The City podcast.) Though that debris has been cleared, the EPA still classifies the land as a brownfield site. Floyd says that if the city and private owners can use local land to harm the community, it's up to the community to take the land back and put it to good use.

Urban community gardens—where crops and/or flowers are cultivated for beautification and/or consumption—can seem quite similar no matter their social contexts. What really differentiates these gardens can come down to politics, manifested in things as overt as mission statements proclaimed by garden organizers and as subtle as the practices developed to keep green spaces free of pests and vandalism. Community gardens can represent long-term residents reclaiming abandoned and disinvested space or be a tool for newcomers to assert their presence in a community. But whether a community garden is developed by a well-funded nonprofit or a well­-intentioned group of neighbors, the staying power of these projects depends on continued access to land—and land access is never not political.

click to enlarge 360 Nation founder W.D. Floyd says community residents have a "right" to reclaim hazardous land for better use. - MAYA DUKMASOVA
  • 360 Nation founder W.D. Floyd says community residents have a "right" to reclaim hazardous land for better use.
  • Maya Dukmasova

"It's our right to impose ourselves on that land and use that land so it benefits us," Floyd says. "It made sense to turn [the lots] into a community garden because you don't have any fresh food around here."

Turning long-neglected spaces into productive land is a slow process. First, Floyd and his students and collaborators must prepare the soil. Working on the assumption that the land is contaminated with heavy metals and will need remediation, the group is building the sites up with wood chips, cut grass, dry leaves, and other decomposing materials to create layers of nitrogen and carbon. This spring, they will test the land for toxic elements.

Last summer, 360 Nation's summer day camp participants (kids aged 12 to 14) cultivated vegetables and greens in planters near Sumner. They gave the crops away to community members. As they scale up their gardening operation Floyd says they want to continue giving some food away for free, in addition to setting up a low-cost pantry and creating a sweat equity program whereby volunteers could trade a few hours of labor in the garden for bags of freshly picked food. All of this work, Floyd says, is part of 360 Nation's larger political education efforts to "fill community voids," both spatial and spiritual.

The Sumner classroom that serves as 360 Nation's base camp displays motivational posters made by the kids, and features images of the "four prophets of 360": Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Ella Baker. Floyd models his work after the combination of social services and political education practiced by the Nation of Islam, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Black Panther Party. The point, he says, is to empower the community to improve the neighborhood without waiting for permission or asking for outside help.

While 360 Nation promotes self­determination and doesn't want to advertise the locations of the gardens beyond the neighborhood, it's definitely not isolationist. Floyd says building relationships with CPS, long-term residents, local churches, and even 24th Ward alderman Michael Scott Jr. will make the work more resilient.

Both lots are currently in limbo, as the city is in the process of claiming them from foreclosed owners, county property records indicate. Floyd says destroying the gardens would be a political risk for city officials. "It becomes really difficult for an alderperson when they are against you cleaning up a lot to benefit the students and constituents," he says. "How can you say it's wrong to fix up a hazardous lot in the community?"

click to enlarge Chicago Eco House's flower farm at Vernon Park Gardens in Woodlawn teaches kids sustainability and business skills. - COURTESY BEN ANDERSON
  • Chicago Eco House's flower farm at Vernon Park Gardens in Woodlawn teaches kids sustainability and business skills.
  • Courtesy Ben Anderson

Yet gentrification pressures on local officials can be strong, and community gardening projects that aren't rooted in secure land access are more vulnerable to displacement.

Community gardens "can act as a signal to developers that this is a new hotspot," explains Winifred Curran, a professor of geography and sustainable urban development at DePaul University who's studied the way urban agriculture and other greening initiatives interface with gentrification. "Because greening has become a way that developers and real estate people try to add value to property, any sign of greening can be viewed as a sign of it being worthy of investment," she says. This can be especially true when neighbors have done the heavy lifting of remediating toxic soil and clearing other hazards at no cost to the property owners. "Often the very people who've done the work of community gardening end up being displaced."

Many community gardeners are aware of these risks but launch themselves into gardening because the immediate benefits to their neighborhoods outweigh the risks of eventually losing their spaces. At Vernon Park Gardens in Woodlawn, for example, a block came together to plant crops, create a performance space, and host one of Chicago Eco House's flower farms that teaches kids business skills and sustainability. The gardens occupy private land with permission from the owner but are in close proximity to buildings owned by large real estate companies. For now, those companies have been supportive, donating supplies and providing water access. But, "in today's society most land owners or property owners' goal is making money," says Joi Hampton, one of the organizers of the garden. While she doesn't rule out the possibility of displacement one day down the line, she says "there'll always be an opportunity to pursue something like this in surrounding areas, we have several vacant lots."

Curran points out that community gardeners who don't have legal standing to be on the land they cultivate have had success protecting their gardens by "making the space very political," in the way Floyd described. If the garden is identified as a site that's important to the community's identity or as a site of resistance, "that becomes less attractive to developers because they know it'll be a site of conflict if they try to destroy the garden." But, she cautions, everything depends on the profit potential of the land. Informal agreements between landowners and gardeners can quickly turn sour when enough money's on the line.

About a half mile away from Vernon Park Gardens, in the Washington Park neighborhood, a longstanding community garden was destroyed just last summer. The block of the west side of King Drive between 55th Place and 56th Street has consisted of vacant lots and one graystone three-flat for over a decade. In 2011, the R.T.W. Veterans Center opened in the three-flat to provide free meals and social services for vets. The Veterans Center also began a garden on the vacant lot next door. In the summer of 2016, Assata's Daughters, a sort of radical girl scouts for black girls, took over stewardship of the space as the Veterans Center struggled to stay afloat. Assata's Daughters built out the garden as part of its environmental justice curriculum, securing access to the land with the help of the Healthy Food Hub, an organization that promotes healthy eating and works with the city to help gardeners cultivate vacant lots.

"It was a space where young people from the neighborhood were being seen as giving back," explains Assata's Daughters cofounder and community organizer Page May. "Usually they're looked down on and being blamed for everything." She adds that those who hung around the Veterans Center, including some who were homeless, kept an eye on the garden. The space became an intergenerational hub to provide fresh food to the community and was christened the Black Earth Youth Farm. But when May arrived on the site to begin planting in 2018 "it was all mowed over," she says.

Because the soil on the site wasn't safe to plant in directly, over the years graders had laid down layer upon layer of wood chips on the lot, and then added healthy soil on top. "The mower scattered the soil everywhere, off onto the sidewalk and past the edges of the sidewalk. The rows were gone, there wasn't enough soil to make new ones," May recalls. "We didn't have the time or resources to rebuild."

Looking back, she says, it seems like the powers that be no longer saw the garden as an asset; its demise "was tied to U of C land grabs." In May 2018, the city land trust had sold one of the lots under the garden to a shell company controlled by the University of Chicago, which now owns three of the four parcels of land that made up the garden. Twentieth Ward Alderman Willie Cochran (who'd supported the garden before, according to May) admitted on Facebook that the city had mowed the site, adding: "Please don't start a garden at that location the land will be sold and developed soon." The Veterans Center building, which had been sold to a new owner the previous year, was now being rehabbed into an upscale rental property where three bedroom units are listed for $2,100 and the landlord requires lessees to have household income three times the rent.

Assata's Daughters didn't give up on community gardening, though. They moved the entire gardening program to a second site in Washington Park. The owner of that lot, a longtime community resident, gave them permission to use the site after she saw them cleaning up vacant lots in the neighborhood. They've pitched more than 20 beds and brought in beehives. In addition to giving the harvest to the locals, they've also invited interested neighbors to cultivate their own plots. This summer, May says, they'll be paying about a dozen youth $15/hour to work in the garden, too. "That's an opportunity for them to engage in developing a resource for the community as part of a larger goal of radically changing social dynamics," she adds.

This time, Assata's Daughters is keeping the location secret, not only to protect themselves from displacement but also to make sure the garden remains a resource for its neighbors first.

click to enlarge At Assata's Daughters' community garden youth grow food for Washington Park neighbors. - COURTESY ASSATA'S DAUGHTERS' GARDEN
  • At Assata's Daughters' community garden youth grow food for Washington Park neighbors.
  • Courtesy Assata's Daughters' Garden

Assata's Daughters, May explains, is trying to model what a black feminist, abolitionist neighborhood organization can look like—how conflicts can be de-escalated and resolved without police, how abandoned space can be revived even when there aren't many resources around, how youth can be movement leaders and not just passive recipients of charity services. "Black feminism understands that the world is the way that it is because of politics," she says. "We have to love and support each other and not depend on the state or depend on City Council to give us what we need."

A similar spirit animates the Semillas de Justicia (Seeds of Justice) community garden in Little Village. Latinx neighbors and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization have worked for years to turn a 1.5-acre industrial site where underground oil tankers were once stored into green space. This summer will be the seventh season that dozens of locals cultivate fruits, vegetables, and herbs to feed their families and continue the foodways of their ancestral countries.

Vivi Moreno, a food justice organizer with LVEJO who also helps with the garden, remembers taking a soil-biology workshop with a well-known white farmer who said she liked to farm because "plants aren't political." Moreno says that is just not true. "There are so many food apartheid zones in Chicago, that don't have access to fresh organic produce, so many folks don't have access to their cultural food," she continues. "When a community doesn't have access to its cultural food that's cultural genocide."

click to enlarge Little Village Environmental Justice Organization's garden begins its seventh season this spring. - JORDAN CAMPBELL
  • Little Village Environmental Justice Organization's garden begins its seventh season this spring.
  • Jordan Campbell

The lot, which has required extensive remediation, is owned by Neighbor Space, a nonprofit land trust that acquires and preserves space for community gardens. Contaminated soil was excavated as far down as eight feet and replaced with gravel; compost and new soil were layered on top and the garden has a mix of ground-level and elevated beds.

Master gardener Fermin Meza helps tend the site, but Moreno says that families are free to use beds to grow things however they wish. "They're showing us what is culturally relevant here and it's showing what community control looks like," she says. Neighbor Space takes care of the water bills and LVEJO provides soil, tools, and organic seeds. They ask for donations if families can spare them. Every week in the summer the garden hosts community dinners, when families volunteer to use crops from the garden to cook meals for 40 to 50 people.

"It's a garden run 100 percent by people of color, 100 percent operated by immigrants," says Moreno. Like Floyd and May, she underscores the importance of the project being led by the people it serves. She's also careful about drawing attention to its location. "We've had random white folks come in open hours and start taking pictures of the gardners. Especially when they're brown, indigenous, it feels a little bit like we're in a zoo."

Moreno says that as Latinx immigrants in Chicago face gentrification pressures, immigration raids, deportations, healthcare access difficulty, low wage work, and a variety of other challenges, Semillas de Justicia is space where community members can freely assert their cultural identities and organize. "The fact that we are here finding joy, and devoting ourselves to land care when all of these other things are happening in our lives—that's an embodiment of justice." v

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