In Pullman, the Sunflower Also Rises

photo by Camden Bauchner

photo by Camden Bauchner

[nggallery id=53]

Past the intersection of 114th and St. Lawrence, across from the House of Hope, a 10,000-seat Baptist megachurch, and over the historic tracks of the Pullman railroad, a two-and-a-half-acre plot of land, has been left–like so many other South Side lots–completely vacant for years. The area’s soil has long been poisoned by waste from its former resident, a Sherwin-Williams paint factory, and the few remains of wildlife that may have once grown alongside the railway have been killed off by pesticides and herbicides that the rail company sprayed along the length of its tracks.

Yet amidst all this barren space, two wooden boat frames quietly announce the prospect of new growth. These little vacant vessels, which have been carefully propped up and framed by cinder blocks, will soon be filled with soil and seed as the Cooperation Operation commences its project: a flourishing urban garden.

In the words of its members, the Cooperation Operation is a “network of friends” who have dedicated themselves to the total transformation of this one plot of land, from vacant lot into sustainable agricultural center for the Pullman neighborhood. At the center of this network is Pullman native Justin Booz. After graduating from Grinnell College and living for several months in Zuccotti Park during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Booz pursued “guerilla gardening” tactics–i.e., moving without permission into unused spaces and setting up sustainable agricultural spaces–in Missouri, New Mexico and California.

Now, having returned to Pullman, Booz has focused on getting the local government actively involved in supporting his urban garden project. Ninth Ward Alderman Anthony Beale has already voiced his support, as has the Illinois non-profit organization Friends of Pullman, which donated the two boat frame planters. Co-op Op is currently registered as a local non-profit and hopes to receive tax-exempt status as a 501(c) organization. While the group is waiting to receive large-scale donations, the project is primarily being funded out-of-pocket by Booz and the other Co-op members who have raised money through concerts and art galleries exhibiting their own work. As the group starts its Kickstarter campaign this week, they hope to expand their small, fourteen-member community into a neighborhood-wide garden project which will allow anyone able to put in an hour’s worth of work to receive free, fresh produce.

While many of the members of the Co-op Op initially became involved in the project through their friendships with Booz, each member has his or her own reason for contributing to the Co-op. “The closest grocery store to here is two miles away.” says Alex Petruszak, a long-time South Sider whose concern for his city’s “food deserts” led him to train in the practice of sustainable agriculture in Orcas Island, Washington. “With the Red Line being shut down, it’s going to be even harder for residents without cars to get food.” Drew Appel, the Co-op’s resident cook, expressed particular concern over the fact that quality food is often times “not accessible for people at most income levels.” Booz’s Grinnel classmate Monica Wizgird cites a lifelong interest in home gardening and agricultural aesthetics as a motivating factor, while Booz’s childhood friend Viviana Gentry notes a strong commitment to South Side activism and healthful initiatives as her reasons for joining the group. Even the Co-op Op’s resident golden retriever, Chewy, seems enthusiastic about the project, serving as the unofficial mascot for the group’s garden work.

Within the first two weeks of its official operation, this close-knit group of friends has already cleared two tons of gravel from the area, along with other miscellaneous remains from the lot’s post-industrial inhabitants. The team has had to remove objects ranging from strange to disturbing, from broken childrens’ toys to bullet shells. “This plot has been connected with some shady events, everything from murders to drug dealing,” Booz says. Many of Booz’s friends from his days growing up in Pullman have either become ensconced in gang culture or have fled the neighborhood.

While Pullman is still celebrated for its unique Victorian architecture and historic legacy, the steady decline of the neighborhood’s railroad industry has left behind scars. Even the limited economic progress Pullman has experienced in recent years has only increased residents’ fear of deeply entrenched crime. “A lot of people in this neighborhood keep guard dogs,” says Petruszak, as Chewy is greeted by a chorus of aggressive barks on his way to the garden site. “People are afraid because there are about twice as many [arrests] in this neighborhood [police beat] compared to the surrounding area.”

Yet while the original boom of the Pullman railroad company went bust, the legacy of faith in hard work and industry remains essential to those in Pullman now working with the Co-op to revive their neighborhood. “There was this seventy-year-old man out here volunteering for us,” recounts Co-op member Viviana Gentry. “He was the one who taught us to really use a sledgehammer. We thought we knew how, but he’d spent years working on the railroad here.”

Even the agricultural damage that has been done by the railroads is not, in the minds of the Co-op members, permanent. Along that barren strip of dirt running parallel to the train tracks, Gentry hopes to plant a row of sunflowers, a plant well known for its ability to absorb and mitigate harmful soil toxins through the process of phytoremediation. These sunflowers are, at the moment, non-existent. Nothing so far has grown in this urban soil, and the hulls of the garden boats remain empty. Yet these theoretical sunflowers have come to serve as the unofficial symbol of the Cooperation Operation; the first post on the group’s new website is a picture of an endless field of yellow petals, and a sunflower’s face forms the second “O” in the group’s newly minted business cards. For a group hoping to rid Pullman of a range of toxins, these visions of a tall flowering future serve as vital signs of hope.

This story has been revised to reflect the following corrections:

Corrections: April 27, 2013

An earlier version of this story erroneously attributed support for the Cooperation Operation to 2nd Ward Alderman Robert Fioretti. Public support has come from 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale, not Fioretti.

In addition, Alex Petruszak wished to clarify the statement he made regarding robberies and break-ins in Pullman. The original statement was made in reference to “a CAPS (Chicago Alternative Police Strategy) meeting in February [in which] there were twice as many arrests made by our local beat (CPD Beat 531) than by the other two beats which operate out of the precinct. I am not certain how robberies and break-ins in Pullman compare to the surrounding neighborhoods, but I do know that concerns about both are expressed at CAPS meetings.”