Blog Posts, Enterprise Stories, Housing Reporting, One Story Up

A Garden Grows in Cabrini-Green

Community garden along Chicago avenue near Cabrini-GreenSometimes, building community is as simple as salad dressing.

Last week, Linda Bazarian harvested fresh lettuce from her plot in the Chicago Avenue Garden. She made her ownndressing, but it wasn’t any good. This week, she’s trying a new kind, a french dressing recipe that’s a favorite of Johnnie Jones, another gardener.

These kind of recipe swaps are common among neighbors and friends.

But it’s unlikely that Linda and Johnnie would have even met before. Linda lives in upscale Old Town, and Johnnie’s a long-time resident of the Cabrini rowhouses.

It’s the garden that’s brought them together. It’s what the garden is about.

Fourth Presbyterian Church bought the lot on Chicago Avenue between Hudson and Cleveland, the southern border of the Cabrini-Green housing project,several years ago. Eventually, they hope to put a community center here, but for now, the garden serves as a way to bring people together, feed the community, and provide a safe space for kids to play

Ms. Jones, who’s 73 years old and lived in Cabrini-Green since 1963, lives by mantra she’s passed on to all her
kids and any one she’s known: “Wherever you go, get involved in the community.
And so Ms. Jones walks down to the garden several times a week to tend to her tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and cabbages. She says when she returns home, bag of home-grown produce in hand, she gets stopped by everyone she knows.

“Ms. Jones, Ms. Jones, they say, what do you have?” she says, smiling.

She wishes more residents would get involved in the garden. Only five or six families from Cabrini come there regularly, she says.

It’s a challenge for the garden, says director Natasha Holbert. She says kids flock here in droves, but it’s tougher attracting adults, something the church is working on and committing time and resources to.

I’ve read about a lot of community initiatives like this one, and a lot of them seem to fall into the same pattern. If adults
come, it’s more likely to be the middle and high income ones, while public housing residents are a little less willing and may feel less welcome.

Church members point to the kids as the evidence that it’s working. At first, I was a little skeptical of this. Kids are great and all, but if the adults aren’t here, mixing and learning from each other, where’s the potential for lasting change?

I asked Robin Snyderman about this. She’s a housing expert at Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit that has done a lot of work in building community in these new mixed-income sites. Are kids the easy target, I asked Robin, eschewing meaningful adult community?

Nope, she said. Kids are the gateway. People will go to things they would never go to because their kids want to or are already there. And places like this garden create a space for that to happen.

“This stuff can’t be phony,” Robin says. “You can’t create intimacies where intimacies don’t exist. But you can create common space, common goals, and a common vision.”

MPC is actually sponsoring a contest designed to get Chicagoans thinking about these common spaces. “What makes your place great?” is one of their new initiatives on placemaking – creating shared public spaces where people can enjoy and interact with each other, bringing a community together. Places – they think – have the power to make neighbors out of strangers.

I experienced it myself, spending time in the garden. I was there only a few minutes when a little girl decided I should help her pick out just the right colored pencil for her rainbow. Ten minutes later, when another child pushed her, she ran to me for comfort. There’s something about a tiny person who doesn’t know your name, but feels free to wrap their arms around your neck and cry hot tears, that breaks down your pretense, your cautiousness and your cool, reporter-like attitude.

It’s unrealistic, I think, just to expect to throw people of different income levels together and hope they get along. And maybe it’s also unrealistic to expect that the change we’re looking for – the weaving and binding together of different kinds of people – would happen right here and now. Perhaps the work we do now is for the next generation. And children, as the cliché goes, are the future.

”This next generation helps us grow out of our own segregated past and succeed in a diverse society,” Robin says.

Perhaps the seeds we plant will be theirs to harvest and theirs to plant again. Just like a gardener plants, waters, prays and hopes – we can only do our best to bring people together and hope it grows into something bigger than ourselves.

Maybe it will.

Ms. Jones thinks so. After 50 years at Cabrini, she’s ready to see it grow again.

“I was here when it was good. I was here when it was bad. It’s gonna be good again, and I’m still gonna be here.”

This post was originally published on Sept. 23, 2009 at One Story Up.

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