Photo: Chicago Lights
By Lynette Holloway
Green Right Now
Collard greens, kale, tomatoes, swiss chard and okra spring from a swath of asphalt amid a bustling sidewalk on Chicago’s North Side. The incongruous site is the Cabrini-Green Chicago Avenue Community Garden, a vegetable and flower garden that was home to basketball and tennis courts more than six years ago.
Enclosed by a chain-link fence, gardeners plant on compost beds shaped like crude graves. It is part of a community garden project conducted by Growing Power, a national non-profit organization, dedicated to helping urban families gain access to healthy food systems. Growing Power, headquartered in Milwaukee, also provides training and oversight for volunteers who participate in the project.
Erika Allen, a mother who uses her art therapy major in her work, is project manager of the Chicago urban garden. She also appears in the critically acclaimed documentary Food Fight, which is about the importance of sustainably produced or locally grown food. She also is the daughter of Will Allen, founder and chief executive officer of Growing Power, who last year was awarded a MacArthur Genius Award for his work in the delivery of healthy food systems in urban areas.
“There are very few of us that do this work in our communities,” Allen said recently, taking a break from her work. She speaks with ease as teens and members of the community chatter among themselves and till their garden beds. Only the occasional vehicle horn disrupts the serenity.
“There are a lot of people who do work in communities of color, but who aren’t from the community,” said Allen, who is of African American and European descent. “That puts us in a unique position to also tackle racism. The people who support power and privilege are also those who support industrial food systems. We believe if you develop a community based food system, you have to deal with the social justice issues as well. To a degree, we dismantle the systems that oppress people.”
Allen enjoys interacting with residents. Many of them reside in what is left of the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects for which the garden is named. The projects, whose high-rises are in the midst of being torn down and replaced by mixed-used housing, were once known as some of the nation’s most violent.
Allen said she has seen Growing Power help the lives of some residents in terms of the delivery of fresh food in an area where it is sorely needed. The project is comprised of 68 plots and assigned based on a first-come, first-served basis each year. The first round of plots go to people who have gardened in the past. If gardeners fail to reapply within a certain period of time, the plots are reassigned. New gardeners must sign up for an orientation session.
On a warm July afternoon, Allen sat at a picnic table alongside youngsters working on art projects. She interacted with passers-by as she stressed the importance of community based food systems. Brian Ellis, 18, who has lived in the projects for much of his life, was one of them.
Ellis obtained a job at Growing Power four years ago through Youth Corps. He has learned about composting and the value of fresh produce by selling vegetables on market day, he said.
“I’ve been doing composting since last summer,” he said. “I didn’t know about it. You can use it to grow all of this stuff if you break it down until you get a rich soil. I like market days, too because I can take some of the vegetables home to my mom to cook.”
Besides Cabrini-Green, Growing Power has community projects at Grant Park in downtown Chicago and Jackson Park on the South Side.
“Our foundation here is our youth training,” Allen said. “We help build life skills, character development and an understanding of food systems as a job-training component. A lot of our Youth Corps members are recruited from this garden. We have kids who started with us who were 10 and are now 15. Some have recruited friends. ”
Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church on the Gold Coast owns the land, about 2,000-square-feet, on which the urban garden sits, according to Natasha Holbert, garden program manager for the church. She praised Allen’s work in a telephone interview, saying she has been instrumental in helping to build community.
“She’s a wonderful resource to us,” Holbert said. “The great thing about the project is that it’s recreational, too. It’s about building community. We have cookouts every month and play games. There’s also a labyrinth on the recreation side of the land. The entire space is not used for gardening. We try to use it for other things. You don’t have to garden or grow vegetables. You could do a book group. It’s a model program. There aren’t too many gardens that are like it.”
Chris Taylor, the Food Fight documentarian, agrees about it being a model program. He learned of Allen while interviewing Tom Philpott, co-founder of the North Carolina-based Maverick Farms, for the documentary.
“She’s is amazing,” he said of Allen in a telephone interview. “I enjoyed interviewing her for the film. Chicago is at the cutting edge of the urban garden movement.”
Copyright © 2009 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media