October 13, 2009

Neighborhood reflects as garden closing finalized

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Community members and gardeners disheartened by the University’s decision to close the 61st Street Garden are celebrating the last days of its final gardening season.

The University will close the garden on November 15 in preparation for construction of the Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) on the adjacent block at the beginning of next year.

This summer, activists, gardeners, and students rallied around the garden, which has occupied the empty University-owned lot at 61st Street and Dorchester Avenue for the last nine years. The University has a standing offer to move the garden’s topsoil and to work with the gardeners to find new space for plots, but many worry the garden, and its significance to the community, will not be transportable.

“We’re all down here and we have something in common and we enjoy each other here.... The chemistry is not just in the soil, it’s in the people,” said Debra Hammond, a gardener featured in a documentary about the garden titled The Garden Conversations.

The corner of 61st and Blackstone, which community members nicknamed the “Sustainability Quadrangle,” draws significant foot traffic from both Hyde Park and University residents, especially during the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings throughout the summer. The farmer’s market will continue throughout the construction during its typical summer season, which ends this year on October 31st.

Sonya Malunda, associate vice president for the Office of Civic Engagement, said the University hopes to work in tandem with the people and resources involved with the garden to find a new location for the garden. “We [can] bundle up that creativity and move it to a new location,” she said.

Jamie Kalven is a neighborhood activist and founder of the Invisible Institute, the journalistic institute producing The Garden Conversations. The institute is posting daily interviews with gardeners at their plots online until the garden’s closing, in celebration of the garden and its effect on individual gardeners as well as the community as a whole.

Kalven believes the garden has developed into more than just a place to grow plants. “It grew in a particular way,” he said. “It belongs to this particular site.”

The intersection is also home to Blackstone Bike Works, the Experimental Station — a nonprofit that supports cultural and community projects and houses Backstory Café — and the Invisible Institute.

“This big green space is actually like a nightclub in terms of bringing people together,” Kalven said. “People don’t grasp how intensely urban it is.”

The vitality of the area contrasts with much of Woodlawn, which is home to many abandoned lots and has struggled to increase development and retail in the area.

Garden manager Jack Spicer said the University’s decision has damaged University-community relations, in addition to undoing a positive development in the area.

“What the University is doing to the community garden, I believe, will have a chilling effect on all kinds of sustainability initiatives in the neighborhood, and a chilling effect on University-community relations,” he said.

Malunda said there are no finalized plans for the space after construction is completed, but that the University will continue to engage in dialogue with the community to identify how the space can best serve both the University and the community.

University construction experts don’t believe construction can coexist with the garden, Malunda said, pointing out that during the construction of the adjacent chiller plant, eight plots were damaged.

“It’s a major large-scale construction project, and we need that garden area so we can safely and efficiently build that new building,” she said.

University graduate students and alumni have been involved with the garden, but no undergraduates have had plots. However, the Facebook group “Bulldozers vs. the 61st Street Community Garden” has 139 members, including a number of students in the College.

Lexie Tabachnik, a second-year student who started the Facebook group, became interested in the garden after visiting the Farmer’s Market.

“Just talking to these people and visiting the Farmer’s Market myself, I got to know a lot about the positive things the garden has done for the community and to revitalize the area,” Tabachnick said. “It seemed to me like this amazing story of where a lot of people came together and did a lot of positive things.”

Her group, she said, was not organized to protest the closing of the garden, but to celebrate it and to improve relations moving forward. “We at least can be aware of future decisions that might affect the community in a similar way and possibly prevent those.”

Tabachnik said the decision reminded her of discussions during O-Week about the perceived separation between the University and community members. “They’re trying to train us to be sensitive to the relationship that the community members have with the university,” she said.

Hearing about the closing of the garden, Tabachnik said, “kind of rings a bell and says maybe this isn’t the best idea and maybe we should think about what’s wrong with it.”

Tabachnick said she was most concerned about how the lot will be used after the construction of the garden. “It is sad to imagine a space that is positive turning into a space that has nothing in it,” she said.

Malunda said she sees the moving of the garden as an opportunity for students living south of the Midway to get involved with the garden and benefit from its ability to strengthen community and support sustainability efforts.

All involved with the garden noted its effect on both plot owners and visitors alike.

“It’s actually a really elusive thing. It’s profound and it’s deep and it’s essential, but it’s also elusive, and it’s not easy to formulate,” Kalven said.