Chicago has always been a city of gardens. In the 1840s and 1850s, families tended garden plots alongside their homes in town, inspiring the city’s motto, “Urbs in horto,” meaning “city in a garden.” Cathy Jean Maloney, the author of “Chicago Gardens: The Early History,” describes early-nineteenth-century Chicago as a “horticultural mecca,” a city that defiantly gardened in the face of a landscape that Frederick Law Olmsted described as “low, flat, miry and forlorn, with a bleak surface, arid soil and exposure to harsh and frigid gusts of wind.”
During the City Beautiful movement in the early 1900s, the focus shifted from sustenance to sanctuary, to creating respites from harsh city life—secluded places of leisure and an abundance of trees that stood in contrast to the flat prairie land. Chicagoans didn’t entirely abandon fruit and vegetable gardens, and women’s groups advocated for the production of cheap, clean food, but it was florists, often wealthy amateurs, who garnered the most prestige. The predominance of gardens as decorative or recreational venues held sway through most of the twentieth century, even into the 1960s, when community groups began transforming empty lots into shared gardens. Most of these gardens, until recently, were established as ornamental gardens, and the entire space was communal.
In the last few years, Chicago, like other American cities, has seen a huge increase in vegetable gardening. The motivations for vegetable gardening are manifold: some want to save money by growing their own produce, others want to eat organically and locally and most enjoy the visceral rewards of a little manual labor. Chicago has 70,000 empty lots, many of which are owned by the city. For residents who don’t have land for gardening of their own, these litter-ridden weedy spaces can look like untouched oases of nature. Gardens tend to develop, well, organically, as a pedestrian jealously catches sight of her neighbor harvesting juicy red ripe tomatoes and wants to join in, then brings a friend or two.
Ben Helphand is one of the people who turns these collective impulses of a neighborhood into permanent, albeit transforming, green spaces. The executive director for NeighborSpace, a nonprofit established in 1996 by the City of Chicago, the Chicago Park District and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, exists to acquire vacant lots in order to ensure the continued existence of community gardens. NeighborSpace came into existence before terms like “locally grown” and “organic” were part of the national idiom. “Most of our gardens are not actually allotment gardens,” he says, referring to the practice of carving up a larger parcel of land into individually tended smaller plots. “They’re collective,” says Helphand. “It’s not just about your individual spot.”
Communal, perhaps, but this isn’t the radical approach of homesteaders—individuals who, buttressed by an impressive supply of time, money, talent, enthusiasm or all of the above, attempt to live self-sufficiently. “It’s not subsistence farming, it’s ‘I’m going to grow some tomatoes to supplement my salads because this is fun,’” says Helphand. “I think it really is a combination of people being practical, and kind of tough, and wanting to grow their own vegetables,” he says.
Helphand says almost all the gardens established in recent years are allotment gardens, home to plots tended by individuals and families hoping to reap the fruits of their labor in a more literal sense. For gardeners lucky enough to get a plot, yearly fees range from $25-100, although some gardens will allow gardeners to do volunteer work instead. Chicago is now rife with wannabe allotment gardeners who stop by neighborhood gardens or search an online garden directory run by the Chicago Park District (it’s only partially comprehensive; new gardens often spring up unbeknownst to the Park District) in hopes of getting a plot or a spot on the waiting list. The more ambitious among them start their own allotment gardens, blissfully unaware of how much work they’ll invest in that empty lot across the street.
Helphand has seen a huge increase in applications as well as individuals calling in search of a community garden they can join. NeighborSpace now has seventy-one gardens. “It sounds like a lot of gardens, but it really should be upwards of two hundred, two hundred and fifty, or more,” says Helphand, who says the organization is on track to acquire three more gardens by the end of the year.
The mirage of a fertile green space, an escape from the concrete and brick desert of the city, inspires city dwellers to devote countless hours to gardening, but also, perhaps unexpectedly, to the less romantic elements of city gardening—negotiating conflicts between gardeners, arguing with private property owners, navigating Chicago bureaucracy—in the hopes of ensuring the future of a small haven in a city whose industrial past is difficult to escape.
“It’s nice to have a space to feel like you’re in touch with nature and to watch your plants grow,” says Benjamin Murphy, who founded and helps coordinate the 65th Street and Woodlawn Avenue garden. “Being in a city like this it’s nice… to be able to get your hands in the dirt,” he says.
A new-found interest in vegetable gardens among urban dwellers means a new crop of gardeners are learning the challenges—and rewards—of community gardens the hard way. Community gardens face a number of obstacles, and the threat of losing your land, land you have transformed from barren into fertile, from trash-littered into lush and green, is especially dispiriting for gardeners.
“Sometimes it’s just a handshake, sometimes it’s a formal lease, and everything in between. Of course the problem with that is you can spend years and you can spend a lot of money and sweat to establish something and then the landowner wants it back, and it’s their right to do so,” says Helphand.
For Murphy, coordinating his community garden became essentially a full-time job last year. Murphy started gardening in an empty lot owned by Woodlawn’s First Presbyterian Church with just two or three other people in 2007. After the University of Chicago reclaimed the land on which another nearby community garden, at 61st Street and Dorchester, had thrived for ten years, Murphy’s garden had an influx of gardeners and is now home to about 116 plots.
“I’m the guy that gets to tell people when things need to be changed or fixed,” says Murphy, who spent much of his time while searching for work “talking with all the truck companies and [getting] the compost quotes.” He says the payoff has been well worth the effort. Besides the crops he harvests each year, he says it “helps to strengthen the social fabric of the neighborhood… We can be kind of isolated from each other at times,” Murphy says. “In a situation like this, it’s a space where people can get to know each other.”
The most successful community gardens are often found in neighborhoods that have struggled to build community in other ways. Less-affluent communities, like those on the West Side of Chicago, are home to the most vacant lots. Vacant lots attract crime, and just about every person I spoke to who is involved with community gardens emphasized how gardens reduce crime in the area.
“People are eyes and ears on the street. If people are out there taking care of their garden, the gangs and drug dealers are going to go somewhere else,” says Glenda Daniel of Openlands, a nonprofit organization that helps with neighborhood open-space planning. Rather than seeing vacant lots as hotbeds of crime, community gardeners look to vacant lots and see the potential for a community hub where neighbors create connections. People who might otherwise not be willing to devote the time and energy to other community activities may join with the hopes of reaping a bounty of vegetables and be surprised by the additional reward of new friendships formed.
The larger effect of community gardens, beyond just gardening, is crucial to the proliferation of these projects. Dealing with the bureaucracy surrounding community gardens is no easy task and the process of securing a community garden tends to take about a year of purely bureaucratic work—that’s not including the time it takes to actually turn the land into a garden. However, a lot of the obstacles that hinder other community efforts are removed.
In order to secure a garden through NeighborSpace, the garden must earn the support of the alderman, but this is rarely a challenge. “Vacant lots become eyesores for criminal activity,” says Alderman Robert Fioretti of the second ward, who says he’s been a gardener for years. Community gardens, on the other hand, “really [bring] the community together.” The opportunity for an alderman to strengthen the communities within his ward and beautify the area at little cost to the city is an appealing one, especially in areas that have a dearth of vacant lots.
Other sustainable efforts are often undertaken only by the wealthy—green building, carbon credits, and hybrid cars are all expensive—but gardening isn’t as hard a sell. Gardening can be a cheap source of fresh, organic produce, and this cross-demographic appeal is part of what makes Chicago a prominent city in the urban-farming movement. Rarely do the hot topics and the concerns of the Loop and the North Side coincide so aptly with those of the South Side and the West Side of the city, and this may be part of why there are so many organizations designed to support community gardening. Chicago has formed a network of “greening city” organizations, GreenNet. “We don’t fight with each other, we all work together,” says Openlands’ Daniel, who says Chicago is living up to its motto, far ahead of its peers in supporting community gardens.
A number of nonprofit organizations in Chicago are establishing more formal urban-farming programs that work at the intersection of sustainable food and low-income communities. Urban farms, as their name suggests, are designed to produce substantial harvests that earn income and can feed significant numbers of people. I visited two urban farms that have similar missions but are run by separate organizations, Green Youth Farm’s Washington Park farm and Growing Power’s Chicago Lights Urban Farm at Cabrini Green.
Both Green Youth Farm, a branch of the Chicago Botanic Garden, and Growing Power, which was founded in Milwaukee, believe establishing urban farms can provide fresh produce in areas where it’s desperately needed and can teach residents about healthy and sustainable lifestyles while also bringing the community-building aspects of a garden to the neighborhood.
The problem of urban “food deserts” has plagued low-income communities for years, but was often neglected in favor of other education, health and job programs. A food desert is an area where foods necessary to eat healthily are not accessible but fast-food restaurants are a dime a dozen; Chicago is filled with food deserts, and many Chicago youth grow up on a steady diet of cheap fast food. The physical, financial and social barriers can make purchasing healthy food at Jewel-Osco out of reach, let alone at Whole Foods.
Chicago teenagers who work at urban farms during the summer take part in programs that are essentially a cross between summer camp and job training. They learn how to plant, grow, harvest and sell an array of fruits and vegetables, but the scope of these programs extends beyond the farm. Teens are expected to show up on time, to work hard and to treat both their boss and their coworkers with respect—skills that earn them a paycheck as well as improve their chances in the job market later on.
“When I first came I didn’t know anything about gardening,” says Keith Holcomb, an 18-year-old working at the Chicago Lights Urban Farm. “This just keeps me out of trouble.” At another job, Holcomb said, “I would’ve gotten fired. I would be yelling at my boss.” Here he’s given another chance, but he isn’t let off easy. “If they send you home, you don’t get paid for the day. You have to make it up,” he says.
As I followed young gardeners through both farms I visited and they proudly showed me the fetid compost pile, the blossoming flowers on the squash and the moist, earthy terrain of the worm bin, I was amazed by how much these teens knew about gardening just weeks into the program. Every teen I spoke with said now they were eating vegetables they hadn’t liked or didn’t know existed, like kale, snow peas and red leaf lettuce.
Akela Hayes, an 18-year-old working at the Green Youth Farm’s Washington Park farm, said she was shocked to learn that bees have to “have sex” in order for broccoli to grow, that plants grow so quickly, and that you have to put “a lot of work… time… and energy” into growing plants.
Urban farm programs like these cut across a number of issues, attracting support from a wider array of activists but each project is so labor and resource intensive that so far, at least, it’s been maintained on a relatively small-scale. While both organizations have a handful of lots throughout the city that produce bushels upon bushels of crops each season, it’s not an approach designed to systematically solve the food-desert problem.
Vegetable gardening is the hot topic right now, but those who have been gardening for years appeal to the pleasure of a beautiful, flowering garden. Ornamental community gardens still predominate and many of them are in need of volunteers, despite the waiting lists for plots at many vegetable gardens. I spoke with Doug Wood, a coordinator for the Wicker Park Garden Club, who defended the importance of ornamental gardens. An ornamental garden “with a place for people to sit” benefits thousands of people, he says. “In the same amount of space you may occupy twenty-five people creating twenty-five gardens themselves.”
The Wicker Park Garden stands in contrast to the proliferation of vegetable gardens in recent years, but the qualities of a successful community garden are mostly the same, regardless of whether crops are harvested or not. The club started in 1984 but the garden was neglected in the 1990s and became a hangout for drug dealers and gang members until the club was reborn in 2002. “It’s a psychological, uplifting, creative neighborhood development,” says Wood, who has overseen the transformation of the park.
Many ornamental gardens are bridging the divide by adding vegetable plots to their gardens or establishing areas with vegetables or herbs for gardeners to share. In her book, Maloney writes, “In the early days, clear distinctions were not made among florists, nurserymen, farmers, orchardists, market gardeners, or the yet-to-be-defined profession of landscape architecture. These disciplines often overlapped and caused turf battles and confusion.” The landscape is changing once again, and so once again there is confusion over why we’re gardening, where we can garden, and what our gardens will ultimately look like, but the City in a Garden has done this before.
There’s something especially poetic about the spontaneous development of gardens, when one person reaches out to neighbors they’ve never talked to before with the quixotic hope of establishing a miniature Walden on the remains of an old industrial zone that’s seen the violence of animal and human slaughter. “I think people have a pent-up desire to be a part of their community,” says Howard Fink, founder of the 62nd Street and Dorchester community garden in Woodlawn. “It really does a lot to revitalize neighborhoods, and beautify neighborhoods, and add to the community… It’s a lot of work, but it’s very fulfilling.”