Fighting Chicago's Gang Problem with Gardens

Fighting Chicago's Gang Problem with Gardens

Monday morning I woke up and checked Twitter to see a story on the Trib about gang violence in my neighborhood taking the life of one, and wounding four others. I wish I could say it was surprising, but this kind of story becomes all too common around these parts in the summer.

Waking up to this kind of news it becomes hard to not feel jaded. It’s even worse when you hear and see it. Earlier this spring a kid was shot about a block away and his friends carried his body down the block and around the corner and waited for the ambulance and police just outside my garden gate. It was the middle of the day and it quickly put an end to my gardening activities.

Remember the scene in HBO’s The Corner where a background character wishes they’d round up all the crackheads and kill them? Then the voice off camera asks him if he really means it and he just looks away and remains silent? I sometimes feel like that man, and I hate myself for it.

Worrying about people getting shot and bleeding out before your eyes isn’t something anyone should have to worry about when they’re planting seeds, but this is the reality for many us who garden in this city.

On Tuesday, I woke up and the anger, fear, apathy and disgust I went to bed with over the state of Chicago washed away and was replaced by something else. That morning I remembered being on GOOD Chicago’s urban gardening panel this spring and saying, in part, that gardening was the cure to our problems. Judging by the applause I think the audience also believed. The problem was that I didn’t believe. Or I wasn’t so secure in the strength of my convictions. I had about 75 Green Zebra tomato plugs that I started this season that I needed to find a home for. They were remainders of seedlings that I grew to sell to raise funds for the Chicago Seed Library this spring. A few years ago I stole a Green Zebra tomato from the urban farm at Cook County Jail and saved the seeds. I’ve been giving the seeds to friends and people who I know through social media and they’ve been raising the plants, harvesting the seeds, and returning some to me. Every year I put the seeds and story behind them in the hands of new gardeners. I’ve been meaning to have a tomato seedling distribution day in Little Village because this is where the jail is located. But it has always been one of those things I come up with that I put on the back burner until the day I have time and money to do on a massive scale. But the time and the money never comes. This week I handed out the extra tomato seedlings I had to people in Little Village. I would put my words to practice. Bring some positivity to 75 people in my neighborhood to, in the tiniest of ways, fight back against the tide of violence and apathy that crushes many every night. 

 At first it was hard. Not only did I have to overcome my own issues, but people had to overcome their own. They had to accept that I was giving them a free plant. Totally free of conditions, charges and fine print. In a neighborhood nicknamed Little Village, people were hesitant to stop and talk. I started by stopping people and asking them if they gardened. Many people told me that they didn’t have a place where they could plant a tomato. Community gardens where gardeners can work a plot are not exactly common. That’s not to say we don’t have front and backyard gardens because we do. We have plenty of those. I got one person to accept a tomato plant, then another, and another. I soon had the beginning of what I called #GhettoTomatoFest going. I unloaded tomato seedlings on people going to the clinic, on people going into liquor stores. Then I stood in places where I knew people had been shot and places where the neighborhood drunks and addicts hang out, where the gangbangers post up and flash their signs at cars and people walking by. There were lots of people eyeing me suspiciously, a lot of people questioning why I would give them a free plant. But the kids were a bright spot. You see, a plant that could represent a burden to an adult is a symbol of hope and possibility to a kid. 

One lady was standing at a bus stop with her four kids. She’d been looking at my plastic crate and hand-drawn sign advertising free tomato plants, but didn’t want any part of it. I could see the oldest of her kids asking her under his breath to walk over and get a plant. But she would furrow her brow, cross her arms and nudge him back. So I extended a plant to him and he walked over smiling ear-to-ear and took it from my hands and walked back where his mother asked him what he planned to do with it. “I’m going to grow it,” he said. By the time their bus arrived they were all gathered around the oldest kid and his tomato and smiling.

Perhaps it’s idealistic, naive, and stupid to think that gardening can cure the gang and violence problem we’re facing. But I for one am tired of feeling helpless and afraid. I’m tired of reading about people dying, I’m tired of worrying about the kids playing outdoors, and I’m tired of hearing the sirens as cops and ambulances rush to the next crime scene. I’m tired of feeling tired. Now I just need to put tomato plants in the hands of the 79,213 people in this neighborhood I didn’t reach this week. Then we’ll really see if we gardening can cure out problems.

If you are looking for garden tips, tricks, and ideas visit the MrBrownThumb urban gardening blog.


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  • fb_avatar

    Thank you @MrBrownThumb for telling such a powerful story and, especially, for offering such a poignant, simple and scalable solution! I am sharing this post widely to inspire others, hopefully as much as your blog has inspired me!

  • In reply to LVHelpGro:

    Thanks for the feedback, @LVHelpGro. I appreciate it.

  • I'm really sorry to have missed this earlier, MBT, but happy to find it this evening. Very moving, powerful essay. Hope there are lots of tomatoes being harvested and enjoyed right about now from those 75 green zebras. I especially hope some of those kids are getting to known the pleasures of juice dripping down their chins and arms from tomatoes they grew themselves.

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    Continue the good work; keep posting more n more n more.

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  • Oh yes!! This was the thing I was searching for, pretty great….

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