University to transplant community garden in Woodlawn

The University has offered to move the topsoil, which is fertile from years of cultivation, from the current garden to the new location.

By Ella Christoph

The University of Chicago plans to evacuate the East 61st Street Community Garden by the end of the year to begin staging for construction of the Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) nearby. The garden, located in a lot owned by the University, provides 143 plots for gardeners to grow and harvest their own food.

Gardeners have cultivated crops south of the Midway since the 1980s, and as the sustainability and local food movements have grown, the garden has expanded and the area has developed into a vibrant community hub.

Sonya Malunda, associate vice president of civic engagement, announced in a letter to Jack Spicer, coordinator of the garden and owner of Hyde Park Landscaping, on March 11 that the University would need the space by the end of the 2009 gardening.

CTS will be built on South Dorchester Avenue between East 60th and 61st Streets, adjacent to the garden.

“For safety and convenience, it made sense to let the construction proceed and let the community garden find a safe and comfortable long-term home,” said University spokesman Bob Rosenberg, who added that the University would work with the community to help the garden find a new location. He doubted it would be a University-owned site.

However, Spicer and other community activists are unsure whether the University has fully considered possibilities that would allow the garden to remain. “It’s not clear how convenient or how valuable or how essential it would be to have that particular space,” Spicer said.

It has been clear that the University planned to develop south of the Midway since the garden moved to the University-owned space in 1998. Rosenberg suggested that the garden could move to a vacant lot southwest of its current location. He said that there are a number of city-owned empty lots in Woodlawn where the garden couldpotentially be located.

The University has offered to move the topsoil, which is fertile from years of cultivation, from the current garden to the new location. “The University has long recognized the hard work and ongoing efforts by neighborhood gardeners that make the Community Garden a productive and beneficial resource,” Malunda said in an e-mail.

The garden works in tandem with Experimental Station, a nonprofit that provides resources for cultural and community projects and houses the Backstory Cafe. The Station is across the street from the garden, and the small street between them is blocked off on Saturdays during the summer for the 61st Street Farmers Market.

Spicer, Experimental Station Executive Director Connie Spreen (Ph.D. ’87), and Jamie Kalven, a community activist who works for the Invisible Institute, a Chicago-based company that supports collaborative social justice projects, hope to initiate a more extensive process with the University to consider options that could benefit all the parties involved.

The garden, Kalven said, could be a gateway between Hyde Park and Woodlawn. “If the scope of the planning process were enlarged, a range of intriguing possibilities would come alive. Such a process would build upon rather than undermine the powerful design coherence that now exists along 61st Street,” Kalven wrote in an essay on the garden that he posted on the Invisible Institute’s Web site shortly after Malunda’s letter.

Gardener Jennette Spencer, who lives across the street from the garden, where she tends a double plot that she shares with a friend, said she has met at least half the gardeners. Spencer relies on the food she harvests from the garden, including tomatoes, cucumber, chard, and bell peppers, to alleviate grocery costs. The $40 annual fee for a plot goes to wood chips, soil, and fertilizer for the gardeners to share.

The garden provides a unique opportunity for interaction between people associated with the University and Woodlawn residents, Spicer said. “I’m not going to meet Jennette in the world I live in ,” he said.

The garden began in the 1980s, when Mike Fowler (A.M. ’49, Ph.D. ’59) began to garden at East 61st Street and South Blackstone Avenue on land owned by the Resource Center, an independent recycling operation.

Other Woodlawn residents joined him, including Spreen and husband Dan Peterman, who purchased the site in 1995 and went on to found and build the Experimental Station.

The garden thrived until the city claimed the land in 1998 under eminent domain law in order to expand the neighboring elementary school, Andrew Carnegie, which now uses the garden as an educational resource. The garden then moved to its current University-owned site, which until then had been an empty lot.

“There are extraordinarily few spaces where people from the University and from the community interact,” Kalven said in an interview with the Maroon. “Let’s just pause and assess the value of what has grown on this site over the decades.”

Both the gardeners and the University hope to stimulate growth on the South Side.

“What we’re really looking for is a process. We don’t have a position,” Kalven said. “It’s complicated and it’s not necessarily adversarial.”