October 27, 2009

Students gather for garden party and protest

Several dozen students roasted marshmallows, played bongo and smelled the flowers Saturday at a protest against the closing of the 61st Street Community Garden. The students hope to stave off the garden’s closure for another month to allow for student input into the decision to close the garden.

While some held out hope that the garden might be retained, administrators said plans to stage construction of the Chicago Theological Seminary on the plot are unlikely to change before November 15, when the University plans to fence off the garden.

Student involvement in the garden’s closure was minimal prior to October, although the University announced the decision via a letter to the garden manager Jack Spicer in March.

Protest organizer and fourth-year Eliot Feenstra got involved last week and plans to discuss the decision with Associate Vice President for the Office of Civic Engagement Sonya Malunda. Feenstra said she wished the University had consulted students earlier in the process.

“I think one of the reasons the University is getting away with this is that nobody knows about it,” she said. Feenstra pointed to President Robert Zimmer’s recent e-mail addressing free speech and discourse within the University community, and questioned why the University had not organized a forum to discuss the garden.

“We’ve tried to be as open and transparent as we can with everybody who’s been involved with the garden,” University spokesman Steve Kloehn said, citing a conversation that has gone on for months between gardeners and U of C administrators.

Other students said the lack of student involvement had more to do with a lack of concern amongst students, not transparency issues.

“People were pretty complacent. I think that, just, people don’t care,” fourth-year Eli Alpert said.

Third-year Justin Tate was surprised there weren’t more students protesting—and remarked that the 300-person Facebook group opposed to the garden’s closure was just a small percentage of University students.

“I’m sad to see that there aren’t more students here, because I think it’s time for students to defend the community they live in,” he said.

Students either don’t know or don’t care about sustainability, Tate said.

But a number of students brought their parents, who were in town for Parent’s Weekend, to the Farmer’s Market, and many of the parents said they would get in touch with the administration to voice their concern about the garden’s closing, Feenstra said.

Most of the plot owners at the garden are not affiliated with the University, and there are only a few student gardeners—due in part to the years-long waitlist for getting a plot in the garden. Students at the protest said they wished they had known more about how to get involved when the garden was thriving.

Fourth-year Kelly Kennedy has shared a plot with other students and roommates unaffiliated with the University for three summers.

She found out about the decision in the spring, but, now that more students are getting involved, plans to call and write Zimmer.

“Even if they do decide to get rid of the garden, I think they should see their building decision in terms of what’s good for the community, not just what’s easy and efficient,” Kennedy said.

Kloehn said the University was in support of the gardeners and the community, but that there was simply no other way to go about the construction process.

“We need to rely on our building experts to ensure that the building site is safe for everybody,” he said.

“The University believes in the community garden idea, and that’s why for almost a decade, we’ve allowed the gardeners to use University land for their garden. That’s also why the University has repeatedly offered to help the gardeners relocate to a site nearby, even to the point of offering to pick up all their topsoil that they’ve tended over time... I think that’s a sign of good faith of sustainability,” Kloehn added.