Condos or Carrots:

Land Rescue in West Town
-David Meyers

Last summer (1997), a demonstration of community support pressured Alderman Jesse Granato (1st Ward) to back off selling the city-owned land that houses the GreenHouse Garden at Thomas & Wood Streets. Organized by the GreenHouse Gardeners, the West Town land rescue effort was one of the first in recent times to successfully challenge the land-grabbing developers and their political lackeys.

The GreenHouse Gardeners, who have grown to love the land they work, demonstrated with over 30 supporters both inside and outside of the Alderman's office. They presented Granato with over 300 signatures demanding that he take the lot off the real estate market after he had put it up for sale without seeking any community input.

When Granato finally relented to the voice of the community, the Gardeners chose to have the lot turned over to the non-profit Neighbor Space organization, which will hold title to the land but leave management of the garden completely in the hands of the Gardeners. The GreenHouse Garden has effectively been preserved in perpetuity (this means forever).

Crabapples, Cherries and

A group of activists and artists started the GreenHouse Garden almost five years ago, to grow vegetables and open conversation between the area's long-time Latino residents and the young, non-Latino people moving into the area for its cultural vibrancy. Common to both groups was an opposition to the displacement caused by rampant development.

One such conversation started last June, when a man down the street offered to let us use his water supply. A home owner for over 25 years, he later told us that when workers started digging to build a new yuppie house next door to his home, they dug underneath his house, a frame house that now sits crooked on its foundation and may have to be torn down. Intentional or not, such actions are criminal and all too typical of the displacement process.

The GreenHouse Garden's original spirit of breaking down barriers while acknowledging differences also had sort of a hip hop flavor, keep it personal / keep it real. (Unfortunately much of this flavor has been lost, or is in hibernation....) At the beginning, a few adults and a dozen kids raked up piles of broken glass and pulled weeds til their hands blistered; they exchanged knowledge about edible wild plants. Chamomile and chicory still poke up all over the place, as they do all over West Town.

One day a yuppie in full regalia of business suit and high heels stopped on the crumbling sidewalk as she walked home to her condo, looking confused by all the activity on the ragged lot. Ten-year-old Danny told her he wanted to carve totems into the upright railroad ties that surround the Garden. He told her about how many kids were involved. She didn't listen.

"Who are you with? the city?" she asked me. "No, I'm with these kids over here," I replied. She couldn't comprehend. Independent activity. Not sponsored by the city, not a do-gooder liberal empowerment project. Independent.

The GreenHouse Garden has since evolved to where it now houses a collective garden, the Diggers' Plot, as well as a few individual plots. The Diggers' Plot is modeled on the principles of self-sufficiency, self-management, and consensus, with a spirit of cooperation at its heart.
Crabapple and cherry trees dot the landscape. The cherry tree bore fruit for the first time last year, prompting dozens of people to scale its branches to reach the cherries - including a woman in her 50s. Winding paths weave through an herb and plant-tasting area, where gardeners educate neighbors about healthy organic gardening practices like resisting the use of dangerous pesticides and fertilizers that harm the environment, as well as composting.

Future Focus

A lot of powerful creative energy has gone into making the GreenHouse Garden a lovely and sustainable public gathering space. The success of the GreenHouse Garden in challenging the forces of displacement should make us allies in the diverse efforts being made by other groups and organizations to proclaim, loud and clear, that the whitening of West Town and other inner-city neighborhoods must stop.

Too many of us have gotten cynical about opposing displacement. This year, I see the GreenHouse Garden focusing much more energy on generating a challenge to the status quo in the neighborhood, as well as developing further skills in growing food.

If you'd like to join the effort by becoming a partner in the Diggers' Plot, call 773.342.7545 (this number good as of 4/30/99). If enough interest is generated, we may be able to extend our land rescue efforts beyond this lot and into other vacant lands targeted for condo development.

If you don't have the time, but would still like to contribute, garden supplies or plants (especially berry bushes) would be welcomed. You can also bring your vegetable kitchen waste to our compost pile.

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