(Un)Common Ground: The people vs. Podmajersky in a battle for Pilsen’s César Chávez Community Garden

The corner of 19th Place and Union, in Pilsen, could be an iconic corner of Chicago. The Sears Tower looms in the distance, close enough to see the individual windows on the various spires. It peeks out from under the Dan Ryan Expressway, which is supported on stilts and hovers sixty feet over the neighborhood. Between the Dan Ryan and the neighborhood lies two small plots of land, separated by 19th Place, one rectangular and one in a crescent shape. One thirty-by-forty-foot plot, sparsely covered in gravel, is all mud and grime dotted by muddy pools of water and torn up by tire tracks. The other plot is divided in two, half more gravel sadness and half covered in healthy grass and fifteen or so tall trees. That divide, born of local politics, could serve as the icon of another Chicago tradition.

At night the lots look lumpy, with moonlight glinting off the gravel and gathering in the pools of muddy water. Tonight the moon also hangs over a small group of Pilsen residents who huddle in the backyard closest to one of the lots. The backyard is sunken into the street, but even so it’s hard to hear when someone speaks because of the proximity to the road.

The group exists because of the divide in the lots. The lot used to be an access point for dump trucks into the neighborhood; things fell off, and they soiled the ground and putrefied the lots. It was also used as a trash heap, so that the skeletons of cars haunted the polluted ground. In the early nineties, area residents, tired of the eyesore and policing children around the polluted area, set about to make the lots habitable. Over the better part of a decade, the lot was cleared and made into something passable. Grass was put down; wildflowers of every color took bloom; a line of different species of trees was planted. Eventually it acquired a name: the César Chávez Community Garden.

“It wasn’t Martha Stewart, but it was nice,” says one of the resident group, Judy, while standing in the middle of one of the lots, a field of mud. “Then the developers starting chipping it away.” Around 1998 the biggest Pilsen developer, Podmajersky Incorporated, wanted to buy the green space the community had created. “We presented them with signatures and support against the plan, and we got them to back down,” says Judy with a trace of weary pride. “This space keeps the noise from the road down, and cuts down on pollution; we worked on it, and it’s nice.”

The community even got the then-alderman, Ambrosio Medrano, to issue an ordinance promising them use of the space indefinitely. “Of course,” laments Sarah Aubry, another resident meeting in the moonlight, “ordinances are like tissue paper.” When the Podmajerskys came back to try and acquire the lot again a few years later, no record of the ordinance could be found. It didn’t help that Medrano couldn’t help verify the ordinance’s existence. Continuing the great tradition of Chicago politics, he was then in jail for his involvement in the Silver Shovel scandal, an FBI operation which uncovered a vast system of corruption among government officials and business interests.

A long process, which is still spinning out, began when the Podmajerskys (who did not respond to emailed requests for an interview) approached the new alderman, Daniel Solis, about acquiring the garden. Upon hearing the two competing uses for the lot, “Solis turned into Solomon. That was the Trib headline, ‘Solis turns into Solomon,’” Judy explains. Solis divided the lot into two parts, separated by 19th Place, and let the Podmajerskys develop one part and the community focus on the other. Through a series of moves, the Podmajerskys acquired the rights to the part of the lot promised to the community, and then started to churn the land over. “A family was out mowing their lawn one day, and all these trucks with equipment drive up. They thought they were there to help them with their yard work; they couldn’t imagine that the garden would be torn up.” Although one part of the lot (the part that currently contains trees) was spared, the community was barred from using the land: “No picnics, no playing, no anything.”

The developer’s civic two-step has left the community confused and angry. “I feel insulted. Don’t we get a little bit? Why do we have to be held hostage to someone’s dreams of profit and market value?” Judy asks, hands rising and falling with the pitch of her voice. Part of that anger stems from the secrecy of both the developer and the government. The residents have been unable to track down the deed of the land sold to Podmajersky, and thus do not know the full legal rights of either the developer or themselves. They also don’t know what kind of time constraints they’re under. All they can do is what they have been doing for almost a decade, what they’re doing now, under the moon: meeting after work, in someone’s backyard, trying to do what they can.

Aubry’s legal pad has the words “PRESS CONFERENCE” circled and underlined. The group plans to issue a statement at a City Council press conference in two days. Somehow, a perception has developed that their efforts are part of an anti-Solis campaign designed to drive him from office, which they want to correct. “We just want our garden back,” Aubry promises. It’s a hard promise to make; Solis campaigned in part on keeping the garden. A document designed for press release circles the group, with everyone chipping in to craft it. The effort takes awhile because the document needs to be translated into Spanish and then back to English; half the group uses Spanish as a primary language.

Otelia Moreno helps to create the press release once it’s in Spanish. Speaking through a translator, she reveals she’s been living in Pilsen for twenty-eight years and had been fighting for the garden when it was still covered in rusted car frames. Her son was one of the kids playing among the garbage that provided the impetus to turn the lots into a garden. “We meet once a week in general, around thirty people have been involved from time to time. We’ll keep fighting to the very end, it’s so necessary to have green space. Podmajersky has green space in his other developments, so he knows the importance of having green space.” Moreno also knows the importance of political action; before moving to Pilsen, she worked in presidential campaigns in Mexico, and helped get José Lopez Portillo elected president. Which doesn’t mean she believes in the political process. “My time on the presidential campaign served to let me know that politics is just politics. Money attracts more politicians. Government aligns itself with big business, as opposed to the people who pay the taxes.”

Money and power will always be a part of any human society. Which doesn’t mean there is no context. When the meeting broke for the night, its members dispersed beneath the roar of the Dan Ryan, with the Sears Tower looming in the background, obscuring the moon.

The website for the community group is www.jardincesarchavez.org. The website for Podmajersky Incorporated is www.podmajersky.com.