Chicago Neighborhood Gardens Grow Veggies, Community Spirit

May 11, 2012

By Cathy Lockman

Chicago Community Gardens

Three years ago, the corner of Calumet Avenue and 51st Street in Chicago was a vacant and neglected lot that Latrice Williams walked by every morning on her way to work. Today, that lot, and Williams’ work life, have undergone a transformation.

The eyesore at the corner is now the attractive, bustling Bronzeville Community Garden, and Williams is a stay-at-home mom who volunteers as the garden’s outreach coordinator.

The Bronzeville project is one of more than 600 community gardens across the city and part of a growing trend across the country to develop green space in urban areas. For communities like Bronzeville, the newly converted green space serves a variety of purposes, from educational to practical to just plain fun.

For instance, the garden’s 12 oversized vegetable beds and surrounding perennial plantings are tended by a lead gardener from the neighborhood assisted by local high school students, giving them the unique opportunity to employ agricultural practices in the heart of the city. Additional neighbors help at harvest time, and the garden’s produce giveaway allows the whole neighborhood to share the healthy bounty. A chef’s pavilion built in the garden’s center provides a nutrition focus by hosting cooking and preservation demonstrations using the garden’s produce.

Frankie Machine Community Garden in Chicago, Illinois

But vegetables and flowers aren’t the only things taking root in the Bronzeville Community Garden. “This has definitely become a community gathering space with multigenerational appeal,” Williams says. “Young and old have a sense of ownership about the space and use it for gardening and much more.”

The “much more” includes game tables made from recycled tree stumps, a performance patio, a life-size chessboard, a large communal dining table, art installations and a butterfly sanctuary. Planned additions include a farm stand project and even yoga and other exercise opportunities.

“It’s a safe, fun place close to home where neighbors can come to play, learn or just enjoy,” Williams says proudly.

Community Garden in Chicago, Illinois

A Growing Grassroots Movement
The success of community gardens like Bronzeville encourages other would-be urban gardeners to explore the possibilities for themselves. And they don’t have to do it alone. In the Chicago area, for instance, there are organizations like NeighborSpace that can help.

A nonprofit organization that supports the efforts of community groups who have a plan for an urban garden or open space project, NeighborSpace was established in the 1990s to help groups acquire and preserve community-managed open spaces.

“It’s a grassroots movement,” says Ben Helphand, executive director of NeighborSpace, who explains that it grew out of a comprehensive plan by the Chicago Park District, the city, and the Cook County Forest Preserve to assess “open space deficiencies and opportunities in the city.” As community groups took on the challenge of responding to those opportunities by planning neighborhood garden and park projects, NeighborSpace took on the task of acting as a land trust, so that community leaders and organizations didn’t have to shoulder the responsibilities of acquisition, ownership and liability for the property.

Currently, NeighborSpace has 81 sites across the city and continues to grow. “We encourage people to keep an eye out in their neighborhood and to come and talk with us if they see unused, overgrown land and have a vision to create a new garden or open space there,” Helphand says.

CookFresh™ in Cook County
The Cook County Farm Bureau is another resource for community gardens. In addition to providing practical expertise on gardening, horticulture and agriculture, the Farm Bureau sponsors CookFresh™, a new program that offers financial assistance for urban garden development.

Four CookFresh™ grants of $300 each were awarded this year “as a way to encourage the establishment of new community gardens and the expansion of existing ones,” says Bob Rohrer, manager of the Cook County Farm Bureau. “These grants come in the form of certificates that are redeemable at various Farm Bureau member gardening businesses. It’s a way to link our local farmers, who have a great deal of expertise they can share, with our associate members who are non-farmers but have an interest in urban gardening projects.”

And projects don’t have to be as ambitious as the one in Williams’ neighborhood to reap important benefits beyond beautification, education and enjoyment. “Individuals who are involved in urban gardening come to understand what it takes to maintain plants and grow food, and that leads to a greater appreciation for the work that farmers do every day on a much larger scale,” Rohrer says.

Chicago Community Gardens

Planting Ideas, Sowing Success
Would-be urban gardeners who have questions about how to develop the open space in their neighborhood can turn to a variety of experienced partners for advice, tips and ideas. If you have a vision for a community garden, the following organizations can help you execute it.

To connect with existing community gardens or for general information on how to get started: GreenNet

For questions about and support in land acquisition, ownership and liability: NeighborSpace, (312) 431-9406

To link with the local farm community for advice and expertise: Cook County Farm Bureau, (708) 354-3276

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