Finding Common Ground

(Temple Shipley)

Benjamin Murphy wedges his cigarette butt into the gray planks of a picnic table and squints, surveying his sanctuary. In the fading light of a late-May Thursday afternoon, the 65th and Woodlawn Community Garden resembles a living patchwork quilt–some plots in this roughly 1000 square-foot space are lined with misshapen bricks, others are freestanding mounds of soil punctuated by the occasional wire trellis, tree branch, or toiling gardener. Murphy laughs, “You can’t gang-bang on this corner.”

Murphy, this location’s new manager, is explaining the positive social effects of community gardens. The goal of such gardens is not limited to the acquisition of fresh produce for the gardeners themselves; the people weeding and watering on 65th Street and Woodlawn Avenue call it a “community garden” for a reason. Along the perimeter of the plot, for instance, the gardeners are growing produce that is free for the taking. That way, the garden serves people who haven’t rented a tract of land for the season. Mike Slatton, a newcomer to the 65th Street site and veteran gardener, says of his past community gardening experiences, “I met people who I wouldn’t have spoken to otherwise.” He is not alone; the garden has inspired genuine interest in the well-being of Woodlawn and the South Side as a whole. For now, the garden is an isolated pocket of dedicated organic farmers fending for themselves in one of the United States’ most infamous food deserts, but Murphy hopes to see it grow to be “something about the fabric of the neighborhood.”

In order to make a lasting impact on the Woodlawn community, however, this garden will need to stay put–no small feat, considering the history of community gardens in the area. “In ten years, this could be a building,” Murphy says. Many of the gardeners in this location tended plots at the 61st Street garden, which was paved over last November by the University of Chicago for the expansion of its campus. The displaced gardeners were forced to grow elsewhere, some finding available spots in gardens at 65th and Woodlawn, 62nd and Dorchester, and 63rd and Ellis. This forced migration has contributed to the already uneasy relations between the University and the surrounding neighborhoods. As Slatton puts it, “Yes, there’s tension. They took our garden.”

The University has taken measures to soften the blow of the 61st Street garden’s demolition. It donated 1200 cubic yards–34 semi trucks’ worth–of dirt to the 65th Street Garden and contributed other resources to the 62nd and 63rd Street locations. Despite this apparent generosity, some community members remain wary of the University’s intentions. One woman who shares a plot with Slatton sees the donations as a means of discouraging protest rather than giving back. She says of the University’s administration, “They’re a bunch of liars.”

On the following Sunday, frustration with the University’s actions is far from obvious. Benjamin Murphy is shirtless today, a grinning Adam in his makeshift Eden. The air is thick with insects and smoke from the brick grill, and the garden is vibrating with activity. Toddlers struggle with the weight of full watering cans and urban farmers plant marigolds, nature’s insect repellent, along the border of their plots. Community members stay into the late afternoon, working and laughing: the gardeners at 65th and Woodlawn are in no hurry to leave.

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