Putting Down Roots: The city’s first year-round farm tenders new growth in Englewood

Though soil has been trucked in and piled thick on top of the concrete, cracked pavement still emerges at the edges of this empty lot in Englewood. Adjacent residential streets are scattered with discarded couches, and those couches are scattered with rusty springs and mildew stains. A couple of portable trailers nestle up to three hoophouses–that’s “unheated greenhouses” to those of us without green thumbs–half full of beautiful red kale, dying tomato plants and neat rows of spinach. From a fourth, open patch of land springs forth lettuce. Low-lying strawberry plants run down the center of the lot. This is the Wood Street Urban Farm, an organic farm on a formerly abandoned lot in the middle of Englewood. Since its owners bought the land from the city for $1 in 2006, it has been the only year-round functioning farm in Chicago.

But there’s more than produce growing in Englewood. Since the late ‘90s, Englewood has been a hotbed for nonprofits, and they all seem to have something to do with Wood Street. Take, for example, the Chicago Center for Urban Transformation (CUT). The CUT was founded in 1999 with the aim of turning existing neighborhoods into vibrant, supportive, and sustainable communities. Its mission statement cites the inspirations for its program–the Sarvodaya movement for Buddhist-inspired economics, principles of social justice and human rights, and community development–and its objectives: education for all, employment for all, housing for all, healthcare for all and, most insistently, environmental sustainability.

After nearly ten years, the CUT is finally beginning to see the implementation of its theories for community development. The recent progress is largely thanks to the LISC/Chicago New Communities Program (NCP), an initiative for community improvement run by the MacArthur Foundation. The NCP has been funding similar organizations in other Chicago neighborhoods for years, but it took Englewood’s a little bit longer to get off the ground. The Teamwork Englewood website cites a lack of broad base of support and misunderstanding of its purpose among many community stakeholders as the reasons for its slow start. It wasn’t until 2004 that the NCP approved Teamwork Englewood’s community planning program and initiated funding.

In 2000, 43.8 percent of the population of Englewood was earning below the poverty level, and poor public services and high crime have driven the neighborhood’s population down by seventeen percent since 1990. Meanwhile, the vacancy rate in housing went up 5.7 percent. Today, seventeen percent of the housing stock in Englewood is vacant. The community is driven further apart, and businesses have less of an incentive to stick around. This is how Wood Street Urban Farm got its lot for $1 and became the center of Englewood’s community revolution.

Although it was founded by an Englewood outsider, the farm is very much the property of the community. It’s a branch of an organization called Growing Home, which integrates principles of organic agriculture and healthy living with a full-scale job training program. A new group of thirty to forty interns tends the farm each season, and in doing so learns the fundamentals of organic farming and healthy living. They also–some for the very first time in their lives–start to make plans for the future. Candidates for the program come from backgrounds that make it hard for them to find jobs. Most have been previously incarcerated or homeless, and many have struggled with addiction. Growing Home founder Les Brown believed that learning to nurture and create could give these people the roots they otherwise lacked.

The program has been remarkably successful. Of those who graduate, ninety percent stay out of prison, and sixty-five percent find gainful employment. Participants have access to free GED courses and a full range of counseling and planning resources. Orrin Williams, the Employment Training Coordinator of Growing Home, is currently helping a graduate start a farm of her own on the West Side. (She dragged him into a hoophouse one day to show him her vegetables. “Isn’t this wonderful? I’m going to take care of these. These are my babies.”) The farm manager, he adds, is a graduate of the program. The story of graduate Margaret P. is on the Growing Home website. Before coming to Wood Street, she was an addict and an alcoholic. Now she’s in recovery and is a full-time student. “My life,” she says, “has done a 360 degree turn around.” Another, Demetrius B., says: “My potential is limitless.”

Graduates of the program bring their newfound confidence and job skills–as well as the money they’ve earned at Growing Home–back to the community. As healthy produce and empowered people fly out and those in search of a more promising life pile in, Growing Home continues to grow. It now runs a ten-acre farm in Marseilles, Illinois, where interns work for two days a week to develop their farming skills. Meanwhile, the Growing Home Community Supported Agriculture program, a sort of periodic food subscription service, delivers to 100 members on the South Side during the spring and summer growing season. Someone recently donated two lots at 56th and Hermitage for the development of another farm.

Last year, Teamwork Englewood connected high school students at the Lindblom Math and Science Academy with Growing Home. Under Williams’s guidance, the students planned and ran the new Englewood Farmers’ Market at a church at 64th and Ashland. Williams, himself a graduate of Lindblom, was incredibly pleased with how engaged the students were in the project. Growing Home had not planned on opening a farmers’ market in Englewood until summer of 2009, but with the students’ help they were able to have one up and running a year early, complete with its own website. From early June through October 30th, the farmers’ market provided affordable, healthy organic produce from the Wood Street Urban Farm to an area that is firmly entrenched in the so-called “food desert” of the South Side of Chicago.

Since the market has closed for the winter, people have been coming in even greater numbers to Wood Street’s Wednesday market days, when produce is available to purchase at the farm. As it gets more publicity, the farm has become a stronger rallying point for the Englewood community. According to Bona Bradbury-Heinsohn, Director of Public Policy at the Cook County Farm Bureau, the current economic situation has led to an “exponential” increase in the number of urban farms in Chicago in the past few years. The organization has 43,000 members in largely urban Cook County. “Urban farming is a great use of property, and communities really rally behind these avenues,” she says. Although agricultural community-building is a fairly new concept, supporters like Bradbury-Heinsohn firmly believe that it has great potential.

Williams makes sure that Growing Home is actively engaging this potential. Growing Home is a key part of Teamwork Chicago’s community development plan, which calls for an Urban Agriculture District that would provide healthy fresh food to the residents of Englewood. The project already has a design team working on ideas for produce carts and strategically placed grocery stores throughout the neighborhood. Plans for a corner store kiosk are in the works, and he’s currently trying to convince vendors to stock produce at existing corner stores. “There’s a process in place to build new communities in Englewood, and the strategy deals with food, fitness, and health,” he says.

The Wood Street Urban Farm doesn’t look like much, but the air seems fresher inside its fence than outside. A few young girls walk by and take a look at a row of Russian kale. One of them smiles widely and straightens the books inside her backpack. As anyone familiar with it would agree, this lot is more than a large garden; it’s a symbol of hope for a growing community.

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