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: Sixteen video clips and some background on the garden.