Operation sunshine

“Please can’t we keep him?” Rynazhae asked her mother, Latoya. “No, you can’t.” Rynazhae pointed at a wriggling worm that had made its residence on the side of an empty lot. Public property. But stealing worms from the city of Chicago wasn’t what Mom should have been worrying about. Latoya and her two daughters moved with a small band of “guerilla gardeners” down the block from the URBAN ART RETREAT (UAR) gallery to this lot, to give back to the worms and transform neglected patches of land on May 1, International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day. Together, they formed a small squad, armed with packets of sunflower seeds and hand trowels that spattered little bombshells of flora in their wake.

Dianna Long, program director of the URBAN ART RETREAT, welcomed participants to battle, a paint-streaked apron tied around her waist. The inspiration for the day’s events arose from the sight of one lone sunflower that brightened Long’s daily commute across the grey asphalt scene of Ogden Avenue. “I’d always thought it grew by accident, but now–who knows, it might have been [the work of] a guerilla gardener!” said Dianna. Volunteer board member Melissa Botello found out about Chicago-based guerilla gardening groups on meetup.com, and together she and Long decided to bring some sporadic, flowery sunshine to North Lawndale, whose streets can be harsh and bare when not littered with everything from glass shards to toilets.

While scattering seeds, Long and Botello chatted with a few guerrilla gardeners about their plans to decorate huge oil drums to exhibit across the neighborhood, part of Garfield Park Conservatory’s gARTbage Fair. With this project, they hope to create invasions of art in public spaces, like the 1999 Cows on Parade art exhibit downtown. According to Botello, the ultimate goal of all of their projects is to “make people look at their own neighborhoods, the vacant lots, and to see the potential beauty of it,” by dotting the landscape with unexpected transformtions. With projects like this, Botello and Long have hope that their leafy campaign will spread across Chicago, beyond the small collection of lone renegade guerilla gardeners and gardens, to nurture the blossoming of whole communities.

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