Hyde Park & Kenwood Issue: Expelled From the Garden 

The U. of C. wants to park bulldozers on a Woodlawn community garden, and it won't take "let's talk about this" for an answer.

61st Street Community Garden

61st Street Community Garden

Marc Monaghan

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.

click to enlarge MARC MONAGHAN

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.

But beyond such nuts and bolts lie the intangibles of place and community. "My kids chased snakes, rabbits, saw hawks and birds, enjoyed all the edible plants, climbing trees," says Akre. "It was a magical place for my family." While a good faith gesture, says writer Jamie Kalven, whose family had a plot at 61st Street, the relocation offer "is based on a misunderstanding of what is essential and valuable about a garden." The garden is a "fragile, particular set of relationships" built over time, he says. "It gives us way too much credit to think we can pick up and do it all over again."

Kalven runs an activist-journalism project called the Invisible Institute out of the Experimental Station—and he exemplifies what's uniquely Hyde Park about this particular land-use controversy. The garden community is full of people like Kalven: people trained—many at the U. of C.—to value critical inquiry, question received ideas, and honor differences of opinion.

"With other institutions [like the police department] you expect a wall and you expect to engage with them on a certain level," says Kalven. "But with the university you expect to have shared values—a respect for facts and open dialogue."

Over the past year, he says, garden advocates have taken great pains to foster that dialogue. They've consulted experts and come up with alternate staging locations. They've pointed out that routing construction traffic down 61st Street could have a disastrous effect on the businesses operating out of the Experimental Station. They've appealed to the university's own stated goals of community engagement and sustainability, arguing that the garden is a model of the sort of biological and human diversity the institution should be encouraging.

And they've framed the issue in terms of the ancient tensions between the university and its neighbors. Last November Spicer wrote a letter to the gardeners telling them that "the dual patterns of arrogant land clearance and institutional insularity by the University, on the one hand, and of suspicion and obstructionism by the community, on the other, date back to Urban Renewal days" and that a "rare chance to collaboratively change those patterns . . . is being squandered."

The drama surrounding the garden has been widely reported, with features everywhere from the Maroon to the Tribune. The gardeners themselves have done much of the reporting; at invisibleinstitute.com, Kalven and videographer Aaron Cahan have amassed a remarkable online archive of material that they hope to turn into a half-hour documentary.

University officials have remained polite but firm. "Some gardeners have suggested that we use the campus property at 61st and Woodlawn to accommodate the construction, machinery and equipment associated with the seminary so that the 61st Street garden could continue," states an FAQ on garden relocation provided by university spokesman Steven Kloehn. "This is not possible. We have made a commitment to our neighbors in Woodlawn who live near 61st Street that we would not use that site for future construction staging."

Construction is scheduled to start this spring, weather permitting, and Kloehn says it's "highly unlikely" that current plans for the site will change. The university is working with the Washington Park Consortium and 20th Ward alderman Willie Cochran's office to identify vacant city-owned land in Woodlawn that could be developed as gardens. The largest of those sites, at 62nd and Dorchester, could contain about 80 plots—a little more than half of the 140 at 61st Street.

Kalven, Spreen, and Spicer say the school has failed to respond seriously to the gardeners' concerns, and Kalven adds that it bodes ill for university relations with Woodlawn. To reassure residents that it did not intend to expand into the neighborhood, the U. of C. stated in a 2004 letter that it "does not own any land south of 61st Street, and it has no plans" to acquire any. But the university is growing, many of its students and faculty live south of 61st Street, and it has ongoing interests in Woodlawn, including a university-sponsored charter school. If it's perceived as unresponsive to community concerns now, argues Kalven, that "could engender a much more polarized, obstructionist, hostile community dynamic down the road."

As the land lies dormant, a thick blanket of snow precluding both planting and construction, gardeners like Kirsten Akre aren't giving up just yet. "We are holding on to hope that we will get some spring asparagus, rhubarb, and some of our currants and not have to give up our 61st Street Garden," she says. "It's silly, but I just can't understand how someone could destroy such a fabulous spot."

"We are neighbors," says Connie Spreen. "And neighbors do talk to each other about how their land gets used. As far as the university is concerned the conversation is over, but for us it's never over."

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