One Story Up

A garden grows in Cabrini-Green...

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Sometimes, building community is as simple as salad dressing.

Last week, Linda Bazarian harvested fresh lettuce from her plot in the Chicago Avenue Garden. She made her own dressing, but it wasn't any good. This week, she's trying a new kind, a french dressing recipe that's a favorite of Johnnie Jones, another gardener.

These kind of recipe swaps are common among neighbors and friends.

But it's unlikely that Linda and Johnnie would have even met before. Linda lives in upscale Old Town, and Johnnie's a long time resident of the Cabrini rowhouses.

It's the garden that's brought them together. It's what the garden is about.
Fourth Presbyterian Church bought the lot on Chicago Avenue between Hudson and Cleveland, the southern border of the Cabrini-Green housing project, several years ago. Eventually, they hope to put a community center here, but for now, the garden serves as a way to bring people together, feed the community, and provide a safe space for kids to play.

Ms. Jones, who's 73 years old and lived in Cabrini-Green since 1963, lives by mantra she's passed on to all her kids and any one she's known: "Wherever you go, get involved in the community.

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Johnnie Jones and Linda Bazarian enjoy moment talking, shaded from the hot sun.

And so Ms. Jones walks down to the garden several times a week to tend to her tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and cabbages. She says when she returns home, bag of home-grown produce in hand, she gets stopped by everyone she knows.

"Ms. Jones, Ms. Jones, they say, what do you have?" she says, smiling.

She wishes more residents would get involved in the garden. Only 5 or 6 families from Cabrini come there regularly, she says.

It's a challenge for the garden, says director Natasha Holbert. She says kids flock here in droves, but it's tougher attracting adults, something the church is working on and committing time and resources to.

I've read about a lot of community initiatives like this one, and a lot of them seem to fall into the same pattern. If adults come, it's more likely to be the middle and high income ones, while public housing residents are a little less willing and may feel less welcome.

Garden from outside

The garden from Chicago Avenue

Church members point to the kids as the evidence that it's working. At first, I was a little skeptical of this. Kids are great and all, but if the adults aren't here, mixing and learning from each other, where's the potential for lasting change?

I asked Robin Snyderman about this. She's a housing expert at Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit that has done a lot of work in building community in these new mixed-income sites. Are kids the easy target, I asked Robin, eschewing meaningful adult community?

Nope, she said. Kids are the gateway. People will go to things they would never go to because their kids want to or are already there. And places like this garden create a space for that to happen.

"This stuff can't be phony," Robin says. "You can't create intimacies where intimacies don't exist. But you can create common space, common goals, and a common vision."

MPC is actually sponsoring a contest designed to get Chicagoans thinking about these common spaces. "What makes your place great?" is one of their new initiatives on placemaking - creating shared public spaces where people can enjoy and interact with each other, bringing a community together. Places - they think - have the power to make neighbors out of strangers.

I experienced it myself, spending time in the garden. I was there only a few minutes when a
Girl in wheelbarrow

My new friend

little girl decided I should help her pick out just the right colored pencil for her rainbow. Ten minutes later, when another child pushed her, she ran to me for comfort. There's something about a tiny person who doesn't know your name, but feels free to wrap their arms around your neck and cry hot tears, that breaks down your pretense, your cautiousness and your cool, reporter-like attitude.

It's unrealistic, I think, just to expect to throw people of different income levels together and hope they get along. And maybe it's also unrealistic to expect that the change we're looking for - the weaving and binding together of different kinds of people - would happen right here and now. Perhaps the work we do now is for the next generation. And children, as the cliché goes, are the future.

 "This next generation helps us grow out of our own segregated past and succeed in a diverse society," Robin says.

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Ms. Jones' pepper plants

Perhaps the seeds we plant will be theirs to harvest and theirs to plant again. Just like a gardener plants, waters, prays and hopes - we can only do our best to bring people together and hope it grows into something bigger than ourselves.

Maybe it will.

Ms. Jones thinks so. After 50 years at Cabrini, she's ready to see it grow again.

"I was here when it was good. I was here when it was bad. It's gonna be good again, and I'm still gonna be here."   


Full disclosure:

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Yeah, I grew that.

I learned last week that bloggers should be upfront about their biases (I don't want no FTC investigating me). So, you should know, dear readers, that this blogger is unabashedly, almost militantly, pro-garden. I have turned a 2-by-2 patch of dirt into a vegetable-sprouting, flower-draped masterpiece, complete with tiny ceramic gnomes. I spent much of time during reporting this story drooling over other people's tomato varieties and reveling in the smell of fresh earth. There - now I've gotten that off my chest. Take everything I say in praise of gardens with a grain of salt and due skepticism.
 
 

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7 Comments

Mandy Burrell said:

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Wow, what a beautiful story, Megan! I hope the folks at the Chicago Avenue Garden enter the "What Makes Your Place Great?" contest at www.placemakingchicago.com, because it definitely sounds like they have a great story to tell. I'm sure after all the rain and now the heat, the photos of their garden would be just beautiful now, too. Thanks for calling attention to a great place in Chicago, and an important issue -- building community in the city's newest mixed-income communities.

Marian Wang said:

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I envy your green thumb. Impressed with the sunflower. This post reminds me that I need to water the one potted plant that I own. Going to do that now.

Joe the Cop said:

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I love gardening, and I love the idea of community gardens. As a cop, the first thing I always ask about is vandalism. Has that been a problem? Is the garden closed off at night?

Nice job with the sunflower, by the way! We have a bunch of them planted behind our house.

Megan Cottrell said:

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Good question, Joe. The garden has a high, chain-link fence around it. You can see it in some of the pictures. I don't think they've had a problem with vandalism so far. But that is an interesting issue with gardens. A chain-link fence is not exactly inviting, but neither is it when your prize winning cabbages get spray-painted orange.
I'm jealous of your sunflowers! that's a picture from my old garden, back in Michigan. I don't have one here. I miss it! Gotta find a community garden to participate in...

Ryan Flynn said:

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Very cute. How do people find out more about it, like how to volunteer or get some space?

Megan Cottrell said:

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You can get more info on their website . Or you can just stop by and get information (probably easier). They're open during the week from 4 to 6 pm and on Saturday from 11 to 3 pm. They always need help with tasks, so it's a great place to volunteer and meet people.

Paulio said:

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Regarding the garden project and Cabrini Green. I would like , if i may , to ask somequestion of Miss Cottrel and Miss Jones. These questions relate in part to Cabrini Green ,the history and former roots of the garden project and one of Cabrini Greens possibly most notorious and famous former residents I am currently engaged in research regarding Cabrini Green in relation to an artistic project in which i am currently engaged. This also involves the nature of geo-politcisation and the urban setting and its effects positive and negative in regards of the individual.I am certain Miss Jones , a resident of some time may be able to help as can Miss Cottrell. The questions are as follows and in regard of , a former resident of Cabrini Green and his friends , who , i believe latterly stayed in one of the most famous high rises and may have encountered Miss Jones and her family. his name i believe runs as follows ; Radinsky or Radzinsky or Radinsk or Rado or Radolino . He and his friends used to cruise around the front of the blocks in a beat up Dodge or Camaro. on one occasion they fixed a ramp at the end of the Runway just pass the old library. They then ran at it at speed , like Gone in Sixty Seconds and took off landing a good 20 yards along. He Radinsky?, also worked as an informal community patrol person with one of the first community grants . It was i believe a $100 dollars per week . He did this for about a year . In so far as i am aware the old caretaker ; all of these events occured between 1960 - 1967 ( when i believe Radinsk died. He lived in the first block . A young black girl stayed on the same floor and he would sometimes babysit her little one. they were i believe amongst others the real life or prototype characters for the motion picture 'Candyman', which as i understand deals with the non mythological in the urban legend historical sense . A couple more things to help jog your memory. Miss Jones (72), may have told hom off as a child. He may also have appeared on television on poverty / social inequity in trhe early sixties , he was very bright and attended some of the shindigs or msocial evenings they used to have in the old hall.He also initiated the original or a predecessor of the present garden project. He spent a lot of time in the library , 1962 , i think . Finally if any of this rings a bell or can you spread the word and post this at the new hall to jog memories or stimulate younger people who are good on the Greenand its former denizens. Finally he had a moustache was in his mid -twenties , good looking , black woolen hat and was i believe involved in one of the toughest clashes , set toos with another Cabrini Green resident this would have occured in 1962 - 1967. Please reply to my email , it is : - alex.trotter@live.co.uk I would be most grateful for all information , and everything you can recall or have heard. Alex

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