20th Ward Alderman Willie Cochran said he would form committees to discuss the future of community gardens in Woodlawn at a community meeting in Carnegie Elementary School Thursday, responding to concerns over the closing of the 61st Street Garden. The University remains committed to its decision to close the garden.
Cochran held the meeting in order to hear the community’s reaction to the garden closure, which makes room for staging construction for the Chicago Theological Seminary at 61st Street and Dorchester Avenue. He offered city-owned land on the nearby corner of 62nd Street and Dorchester Avenue for a permanent garden.
“If this garden subject is what has gotten us here today, let that be one of the things that we take away,” he said. “What I see, here, for me, is an opportunity to build a coalition where we’ve never seen it before.”
Closing the garden is the only safe and efficient option, Associate Vice President for the Office of Civic Engagement Sonya Malunda said, adding the University is aware and appreciative of the the garden’s positive impact on the community.
“How can we create a grand vision that brings communities together?” she asked.
Malunda was joined by Arnold Randall, vice president for civic engagement, and Rudy Nimocks, director of community partnerships. Over 150 people attended the meeting, including at least a dozen University students.
The University announced the decision in April, and the garden officially closed on October 30, but gardeners and community members hope the University will reconsider. Cochran said he will create committees to discuss the future of the 61st Street Garden and potential new gardens in the neighborhood.
He conceded that the meeting should have been held earlier to allow more time for discussion, but said the community should keep up its momentum to ensure its voice is heard by the University—concerning both community gardens and other neighborhood issues.
Jack Spicer, garden manager, demanded an open-ended discussion with the University brokered by Cochran, instead of an announcement of already-made decisions.
Malunda said she didn’t want people to invest more time and energy in trying to negotiate a compromise when the decision would not change. “I don’t want to mislead anyone at this meeting, with all due respect,” she said. She added that the University has now offered to buy new topsoil for relocating the garden, in addition to its previous offer to move the garden’s current topsoil.
Cochran said he wants to put at least 600 more plots in Woodlawn over the next two years, pointing out that permanent plots on land controlled by the ward would establish a strong foundation for urban gardening in the neighborhood. Cochran encouraged attendees to consider future plans for community gardening in Woodlawn, instead of focusing on the University’s decision.
“We take our happiness with us. If we focus on one place, we lose ourselves,” he said.
Brandon Johnson, executive director for the Washington Park Consortium, also encouraged attendees to get involved in the park’s community garden planning process, as did a representative from a community garden in Jackson Park.
Attendees suggested alternate possiblities for staging the construction of the Seminary, including using land at the corner of 61st Street and Woodlawn Avenue that previously had greenery, but has remained empty since the University put plans for the space on hold. Malunda replied that the University promised the neighbors of that space they would no longer stage any construction there.
Malunda did not answer questions on whether construction options might be analyzed by a neutral construction planning company, if the staging process might take place on city-owned land at 62nd Street and Dorchester Avenue, or if the garden closure could be postponed for a month to allow more time for discussion. She stressed that the current plan was chosen for its safety and practicality, and that the University hopes to continue working with the residents of Woodlawn.
Woodlawn resident Quentin Young (X ’44), who has lived in the neighborhood his whole life, said the University’s decision reinforced its decades-long conflict with the community. “This is a rare good chance to get some solidarity, which you need,” he said. “It’s damn foolish and arrogant that they don’t see it.”