'The Garden Conversations' Documents the 61st Street Community Garden

Garden arbor at 61st Street Community Garden in Chicago by Patricia Evans.png

Photo by Patricia Evans used with permission of www.invisibleinstitute.com

As the camera passes by an unidentified woman she asks, “Are you making a documentary about the death of the garden?” Off camera a man’s voice responds, “No, it’s the life of the garden.” The Garden Conversations is a collaborative effort between videographer Aaron Cahan, photographer Patricia Evans, and writer Jamie Kalven about the gardeners of the 61st Street Community Garden. For nine years gardeners have cultivated land owned by the University of Chicago– at the intersection of 61st Street and Dorchester Avenue– on the South Side of Chicago. This past summer the gardeners were given notice that they would have to vacate the property by the end of October, because the University would need to use the land as a staging area for construction planned in the vicinity. 

The Garden Conversations, the first phase of a documentary, is a collection of interviews with the diverse gardeners at the 61st Street Community Garden amid the plots they tended. Besides being gardeners at the same community garden one thing that seems to tether the gardeners, ranging in skill levels, is their understanding of how the garden helped connect them to the neighborhood and created bonds with strangers. In one clip a woman tells the story of a friendship she made with another member of the garden and the day they encountered a hawk in the garden. In another clip, Mike Slatton, a retired SgtMajor, U.S Army, talks about the way his plots allowed him to strike up conversations with people who walked past the garden. He has a funny story about the rural dialect urbanites employed when they approached “Mike’s Farm,” the name he gave his plots.

After nearly a decade’s worth of work there isn’t the sadness or anger directed at the University of Chicago in these clips that one would expect. Instead, you’ll encounter gardeners who are sometimes funny and oftentimes thought-provoking as they talk about life in the garden and how it has affected life outside of it. Don’t be surprised to read one day soon that the gardeners have found a new location. The life of a gardener is buoyed by two little words- “next year.” It may not always be in the same location, but there is always next year.


The Garden Conversations: Mike Slatton (Part 1) from Invisible Institute on Vimeo.

The Garden Conversations: Mike Slatton (Part 2) from Invisible Institute on Vimeo.

The Garden Conversations: Sixteen video clips and some background on the garden.


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  • "Next year" is hopes and dreams, a perfect place always a step ahead.

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    Nicely put.

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    This reminds me of the community garden at the NE corner of Belden and Halsted, which underwent a similar fight in the 70s. They painted the wall on the adjacent building with a mural that said "We will not be moved." You can still see the mural if you squint into the gangway between the newish building on the corner and its older neighbor down Belden. sigh.

  • In reply to naxn:

    Really? I'll have to make a trip up there to see if I can get a glimpse of it. Lately I've been fascinated with the fading murals and advertisements on the sides of buildings. They just don't do building ads like they used to. Those vinyl/plastic signs they nail to walls now are boring and ugly.

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