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Why Save a Community Garden?

A friend of GOOD, Gordon Douglas, has been part of an effort to save a community garden in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood. It's been difficult....

A friend of GOOD, Gordon Douglas, has been part of an effort to save a community garden in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood. It's been difficult. The University of Chicago owns the land, and is determined to take it over as a staging area for some nearby construction projects.He recently wrote us a letter explaining why the garden is so important. It's a little long but it's a great read:I first encountered the 61st Street Community Garden shortly after moving to Chicago in 2006. I had been put in contact with a local writer and activist who keeps an office in the Experimental Station, an independent and sustainable community space on 61st Street in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood-just a couple blocks south of the University of Chicago and the (far more illustrious) community area of Hyde Park. The Experimental Station is an amazing neighborhood asset in its own right, home to a non-profit bicycle workshop, arts and performing spaces, and even a showroom/kitchen for the promotion of nutritious eating and the local- and slow-foods movements, all things desperately needed in this relatively resource-poor, inner-city area. The garden was, much to my excited surprise, right across the street, on the corner of a long neighborhood avenue and the odd little industrial cul-de-sac that it shares with the Experimental Station, some elevated train tracks, a public elementary school, and an imposing old brick power station of the University's. In part because of this unique urban milieu, 61st Street also soon became the perfect home of a new farmers' market, an amenity unheard of in Woodlawn, a 'food desert' with little access to fresh produce, let alone locally grown fresh produce that one could buy-with food stamps if necessary-from the people who grow it. The corner of 61st and Dorchester today is alive seven days a week with the sort of multicultural urban vitality that seems sentimental when you're not actually standing in the middle of it.I began working in the garden that first summer after moving to the city, first helping two friends who had been long-timers there with their plot, while making my way up the waiting list, and ultimately getting a plot of my own. In this carefully nurtured and well-worked soil, I've grown tomatoes, peppers and squashes, carrots, onions and garlic, chard, nasturtium and a variety salad greens, wildflowers, sunflowers, and even two amazingly successful little rows of corn. But maybe more importantly, I saw what an amazing, unique urban space this garden has become. It is a true cross section of the many different communities that surround it-communities which become a single community at the garden. Not a day goes by in the garden where people don't speak with others whom they might never otherwise have occasion to share a laugh-or a tip for growing zucchini. One not only meets other gardeners and their families and friends from an incredible diversity of backgrounds, but the local school children and their parents coming and going, garden lovers from around the city, and the many wide-eyed students and others from the neighborhood who stumble across the place. This past September, my partner and I held our commitment ceremony in the garden; my favorite photos are the ones with the other gardeners in the background, some people I'd never even spoken to, dressed in their overalls with dirt on their cheeks, who just happened to be tending their plots that sunny afternoon and stopped to gather around with us and our family and friends.To just come across this garden-as I first did on my way to the Experimental Station several years ago-is to behold something almost magical. Tall sunflowers and cornstalks striking up here and their like aerial antennae out of the lush and clustered grid of vegetables, wildflowers and hand-built trellises and other little structures, each plot a tiny little world but inextricable from the garden whole, open and always welcoming to passersby. I am fortunate to have one of the plots along the edge of the garden, right along Dorchester Avenue by the bus stop, a prime thoroughfare when school lets out and folks come and go to work. It would truly take a book to recount all the amazing conversations I've had over the little fence with curious people who walk by, pet my dog, ask me what I'm growing. I tell them about the garden, how anybody can get a plot here and all are welcome, I encourage them to come in and walk around, or just pass them a few tomatoes if I have some ripe.Recently though, the conversation has turned to a different bit of news about the garden. Since last Spring, the University of Chicago-on whose land the garden has existed by mutual agreement for about ten years-has been making plans to demolish it. Ostensibly the land is required as a "construction staging area" for a new building to the north (ironically, one with quite laudable green architectural and design credentials), though some facts and common sense seem to suggest that a combination of rolling bureaucratic inertia, conflicting personalities, and university-community history may also be part of the story. But this is beside the point-again, the garden has always been on University land, with an understanding by all parties that it would not be there forever. Offers have even been made to move the top soil and make new plots available in Woodlawn for gardens. Certainly the urban agriculture movement on Chicago's South Side shows no sign of faltering. What is most sad and frustrating, however, is that an institution of higher learning trying actively to foster an image of sustainability and community partnership, was not able to see the value in keeping the garden here, not even in terms of its own self interest. The 61st Street Community Garden is a cornerstone in what is truly one of the most unique, diverse and inspiring urban spaces I have ever known, the sort of perfect storm of community connectivity that simply cannot be created by design; it has to grow. The University would be smart to recognize this, even to brand the garden as its own (something to which not a single gardener I've spoken to would object) or at least appreciate so many of its neighborhood outreach, safety, and development goals being accomplished for it in a way that its own heavy hands could never do so effectively. Not doing so will be its loss and its shame.Regardless, we can take comfort in knowing that the people who made so much meaning in this place, the activists, organizers, community members, gardeners, will no doubt find other plots on which to grow together, and other venues for their inspiring creativity. In the next two weeks, as we harvest the last of the Fall's produce from the soil at the corner of 61st and Dorchester before the bulldozers arrive, I'm confident that even more great conversations will be had, lasting friendships made, and vegetables shared.A local grassroots journalism group, the Invisible Institute, has been filming video testimonials about the garden as part of a documentary project. Here's Gordon's (spiffy shirt, by the way):[vimeo][/vimeo]It's a shame that the 61st Street Community Garden is going to be demolished. It's been an important part of people's lives in that neighborhood. But it also raises a general question: Urban gardens like this have myriad benefits, but those benefits are diffuse and hard to measure. Community cohesiveness and long-term health benefits of eating better food don't get the same respect as the immediate needs of a construction project. How can we measure, and defend, the value of urban gardens?Photo credit.

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