By Elias Cepeda
Jerry Heward didn’t know a thing about flowers growing up as a city boy in Northern Indiana. Yet he is surrounded by and selling purple lilac look-alikes on a sunny Wednesday morning in Lincoln Park. Heward is one of more than fifty vendors at the Green City Market.
“I was never really interested in this type of thing when I was young,” Jerry says. “My son actually got us started, my wife and myself. When he was in high school he worked for a farmer, a local farmer who lived in the city, and he would bring home these beautiful flowers and plant them in our backyard. Each year they’d get bigger and bigger. Our backyard ran out of room and so we said that we’ve got to move out into the country, buy some acreage and that’s how we got started.”
Today, Jerry and Jill’s Stoney Run Fields farm is a ten-year veteran of the Green City Market. The market itself has grown from a sparsely attended tiny alley operation next to the Chicago Theatre in 1998, to having more than 80,000 annual visitors a decade later.
All of the produce, meat, cheese, bread, flowers and more sold at the Green City Market are produced locally and in sustainable manners, in adherence with the market’s guidelines. Though Jerry, a retiree, says he does not depend on his flower business for income, he says the market does play a “big role,” in their overall sales.
Every Wednesday and Saturday he wakes up near dawn in order to pack up his flowers, make the trip to Chicago and set up his booth at the market by the 7am opening time. As a reformed city dweller turned farmer, Heward is patient with his mostly urban customers, and quick with a folksy axiom.
A man with a grimace, beer t-shirt and skateboard shows up asking the price of a bunch of flowers and proceeds to painstakingly examine and critique every seemingly identical petal before deciding on a bouquet and announcing how he will absolutely not buy apples from anyone at the market until August. Not that anyone had asked. He is probably the most sour-while-buying-flowers person anyone has ever seen.
Jerry is unfazed. “I tell people like that, ‘You’re making it way too stressful.’ I’ll have people pick them up and look at them and then they’ll put them back down. Then they’ll walk over here and say, ‘Oh, I want this one, oh no, this one.’ Then they might say something [mean] about some bunch of flowers. I always tell them, ‘The flowers have ears. Be nice. I don’t care, but them flowers, you’re hurting their feelings,” he laughs.
Soon he is visited by a woman who works at a bakery that also has a booth at the market. “How are ya sweetheart? Is this the year?” he asks after her engagement and wedding plans. It is. She’ll be married in August.
Moms holding children pass Jerry’s booth. So do schoolchildren on tours and chefs shopping for their restaurants.
Rick Bayless, one of Chicago’s most famous chefs and restaurant owners, was a founding board member of the market and still shops there, though, he says, not as often as he’d like. “I’ll pick up a bunch of stuff to cook over the weekend. The restaurants [Topolobampo, Frontera Grill and Xoco] buy many things from farms that are at the market,” says Bayless.
The Green City Market has become one of those unique Chicago institutions that is both about being top of the line in quality but also about being accessible. There are ten-dollar sandwiches for sale, but vendors take the Link card, an electronic form of food stamps.
A man in a wheelchair accompanied by his helper pulls up and discusses the purple flowers with Jerry. “Those like water changes,” he tells Jerry, who nods. Jerry says he made many mistakes when he first started planting but now he waxes informative at the drop of a hat on flowers.
Today it is phlox, a semi-fragrant perennial flower in the lilac family. “You just bring what’s in season, whatever is available out there, you bring, so you give the customers a really great variety.”
Jerry Jr., the one who got his parents into flowers in the first place, is off into the world. He graduated from Purdue and works at U.S. Steel as an electronic technician, following in his dad’s footsteps.
Jerry Sr. says this might be the best market in the entire Midwest. His words would be perfect for marketing materials and are, of course, self serving in part. But as you see him standing, smiling, looking out past his flowers and into the park and the passerbys, he seems a long way from working in steel in Northern Indiana. And so you kind of believe him.
“The market is just a good atmosphere. It’s a good way to spend a nice day outside.”
The Green City Market‘s outdoor season runs every Wednesday and Saturday from 7am to 1pm through October 30 at the south end of Lincoln Park between Clark and Stockton Drive.