"Back in the day," as they say, when I was the urban affairs beat reporter at the old Chicago Daily News (in the 1970s), the estimates of the vacant lots and derelict land in the city ran to about 40 square miles. I imagine its quite a bit more now. This is land, devastated by relentless misfortunes, just waiting there for a good idea that'll blossom into something productive and, even, beautiful.
Leave it to Bill Lavicka, one of those rare breeds of urban rescuers, to want to turn several square blocks of deserted land on the South Side into, of all things, a winery and vineyard.
In a great find of a story by Melissa Harris in her Tribune Chicago Confidential column, we read Lavicka pouring out his dreams of an urban winery as part of his devotion to rehabbing and breathing new life into the city. He'd restore a Washington Park mansion into a winery, complete with tasting room, classroom and caretaker quarters, and plant some 5,000 vines on 40 to 50 lots.
Harris described the plan as completing a full circle, in that the house and nearby land was planted with "14 acres of lush gardens....which extended to the untouched prairie." The house was built before the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, when you didn't have to go far in what is now the city to find untouched prairie. It was one of Chicago's last surviving examples of a multi-acre country estate; the others eventually were consumed in what we'd probably now call the suburbanization of the city, as farm and prairie were gobbled up in square blocks as far as the eye can see.
Turns out that the land that Lavicka is eyeing land owned by the city, which holds a large inventory of blighted property. To turn his idea into reality, he is asking the city to sell it him the property for $1 a lot, streetscape improvements and some type of subsidy. Lavicka has been trying for two years to reach an agreement with the city and perhaps it's only a case of a slow-moving bureaucracy, trying to get what they can for a city "asset." They should consider the financial importance of returning these idle assets to the tax roles.
Finding productive uses for the miles and miles of useless land, abandoned by poor families in search of a better life could be one of the city's most troubling problems. If it means turning the lots into vineyards, apple orchards, corn fields or even into suburban-cul de sacs and gated communities, it would be much better than what's there today.
The Washington Park Neighborhood View Larger Map