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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Food gardens help revitalize Chicago's Englewood

Cassandra West

  Morgan Way of Peace Community Garden

By Susan Richardson

Within earshot of the Green Line on a residential street in Englewood, Dip Ross sells chips and soft drinks and locally grown produce at his food stand. Bell peppers, onions, corn and squash are sold along with beef nachos and snow cones.  The produce comes from Rowan Trees Farm, a block from the food stand.

The food stand and the farm were among 10 stops on a driving tour of community gardens and related sites organized by the Greater Englewood Garden Association on Saturday, July 17.  The tour was the first for the association, which seeks to highlight the many gardens where food and flowers are flourishing in the heat of the summer, and human ingenuity and creativity are slowly revitalizing a once formidable commercial area.  Association members hope the gardens sprouting up on vacant lots will help restore Englewood one lot, and one garden, at a time.

Englewood is a food desert and also has among the highest number of vacant lots in Chicago.  Supporters say gardens hold the promise of beautifying the area, increasing public safety, providing healthy food and putting empty lots back into productive use. For longtime residents such as Cordia Pugh, whose backyard garden was on the tour, the momentum around gardening can be channeled for lasting change. “We need to knit together this energy and put an end to the food desert,” she said.

Jenice Sanders, director of Educational Institute, a social service organization in Englewood, is working with area youth and seniors to complete a garden on West 59th Street that will be a “safe haven” for seniors.  This intergenerational effort can help heal the divisions between young and old, she said, adding that it is important to “rebuild the trust seniors have lost with youth.” 

The senior haven garden also has another function, Sanders said: It will provide a place where seniors raising their grandchildren can bring them to play. The garden will have a sand lot for children and tables where grandparents can play chess and checkers, she said.

Sanders is investing her own money in the effort, with technical support from Openlands, an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region. The non-profit is working closely with the Greater Englewood Garden Association and other groups in the community to create a comprehensive plan for the use of open space.  Julie Samuels of Openlands helped coordinate Saturday's tour.

City of Chicago planning officials are discussing whether to designate Englewood as an urban agriculture corridor, which could, over time, result in a flurry of green-related development, including a new crop of neighborhood entrepreneurs.   The recent opening of the Heritage Station Community Garden is considered a prime example of the potential of gardens to address multiple issues in the community, while telling the story of Englewood’s illustrious past.  The station, at 549 W. 63th Street, is next to an affordable housing complex and near Kennedy-King Community College and the site of a railroad stop for African Americans who came to the city during the Great Migration.

Surveying the neighborhood she has called home off and on since 1959, Pugh said Englewood began to decline with urban renewal plans in the ‘60s.  The city razed blocks under the auspices of rebuilding, but that never happened. “This community has been scorched by a lack of engagement,” she said. “How are [residents] supposed to feel good about that?”

The current foreclosure crisis has added salt to the neighborhood’s wounds. On her block alone, there have been five foreclosures this year, she said, pointing to the vacant houses on her well-manicured street.  Gardens are a means to put empty lots to good use, she said.

Among the stops on Saturday’s tour was a community garden built in the foundation of an abandoned building in the 5900 block of South Winchester.  This is the first year for the garden, said Jenna Austin, block club president, pointing to the collard greens and other vegetables growing in the space. Residents, including neighborhood youth, helped to create the garden in an effort to beautify a block littered with several empty lots.

Not far from Austin’s neighborhood, Jean Carter-Hill, executive director of Imagine Englewood if, helped create a flower garden behind Nicholson Elementary Math and Science School at 6006 South Peoria. Brightly colored flowers shimmered in the sunlight in the tranquil space behind the school, and benches and tables are arranged under an arbor. 

The garden is the site of a high school that was demolished years ago. Carter-Hill and others approached Mayor Richard Daley about taking over the space, which is on land owned by Chicago Public Schools.  Her goal is to integrate the garden into Nicholson’s curriculum.

For now, she is focusing on educating area youth about the value of the garden. Like other gardens in Englewood, some youth have pulled up flowers and plants and taken or destroyed gardening tools. With time and education, she said, such problems become less frequent.

Joining the tour was State Rep. Esther Golar, 6th District, who became involved in gardening in response to a vacant lot on her street that was “an eyesore."  Her district does not include Englewood, but after training with Openlands, she became a supporter of gardens as a tool to revitalize communities that have suffered from disinvestment. She is eager to work with other elected officials and residents to change the face of Englewood and other communities. “We need to beautify this area,” Golar said.

The Greater Englewood Garden Association meets monthly. Contact Julie Samuels at jsamuels@openlands.org, or call her at 312-863-6256.

Watch a slide show of the tour: Greater-Englewood-Community-Garden-Tour

More informaton about Heritage Station: Heritage Station Community Garden opens in Englewood