NeighborSpace is a nonprofit organization in Chicago.
“The organization is a result of an intergovernmental agreement between The City of Chicago, The Forest Preserve District of Cook County and the Chicago Park District,” said Britt Willey, Land and Stewardship Coordinator for NeighborSpace.
NeighborSpace is a land trust that was established in 1996 by Kathy Dickett, a lifetime consumer advocate. NeighborSpace acquires the land-currently there are 80 gardens in the city of Chicago that are protected by NeighborSpace- that will be used for the community garden. Essentially, the organization owns the land, but the real purpose of the organization is to support local leadership in the community.
“NeighborSpace is a representation of gardens that produce fruits and vegetables as well as offering a beautiful community green space. Many of these gardens were developed as a tool for community beautification and fighting crime. Transforming a vacant lot into a beautifully tended green space has been used to deter criminal activity and provide a safe outdoor space for families and children to enjoy,” said Willey.
Home Grown Swiss Chard
The community gardens that are tended to for the purpose of creating or preserving beautiful green space are referred to as ornamental gardens. Most of the ornamental gardens that were developed on the west side of Chicago such as, Bowmanville Community Garden, Crystal’s Peace Garden and Old Town Triangle Park were developed specifically as crime deterrents.
However, Ginkgo Gardens, Howard Area Community Garden, Turtle Park and Bush Community Garden of Hope were established specifically to grow food for the neighborhood.
On October 25, 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a plan to build fresh food and produce stores throughout the Chicagoland area. The initiative is designed to resolve the issue of food deserts-areas without fresh, healthy food available-in 36 of the city’s under-served communities. According to Mari Gallagher, author of The Food Desert Report, sponsored by Lasalle Bank, this amounts to almost 400,000 people in Chicago and approximately 150,000 are children.
Obama and Emanuel’s initiative to build grocery stores and bring relief to those under-served communities is an honorable plan. However, the citizens of those neighborhoods are not sitting on their hands waiting for help to arrive.
As the nation’s first lady brings the food desert issue into the spotlight, the NeighborSpace program continues their mission to aid communities in resolving their food desert concerns proactively.
“We’ve grown everything from potatoes to peanuts,” said Karen Roothaan, founding member of the Bush Community Garden of Hope, on Chicago’s southeast side of Chicago. “The apple tree is getting a slow start as we’ve only had one apple from it so far. But, since we are the Bush Community Garden of Hope, we’re not giving up on it,” said Roothaan.
Bush Community Garden of Hope was established in 2003 by co-founders, Sylvia Ortega and Karen Roothaan. Roothaan was responsible for the layout of the original garden as well as the planting and harvesting schedules for 2004 and 2005.
“We started with two vacant lots,” said Roothaan. “Last year we acquired the third one that’s across the street.
Due to Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s dismantling of the City of Chicago Department of Environment, assistance provided by the city will not continue in the same way as it has in the past. However, Neighborspace will continue as well as other organizations that provide help for community gardens,” said Roothaan.
“We take courses in what’s called a Home Grown class in order to learn the ins and outs of gardening so we can grow the best produce possible for our community,” said Daniel Estrada, Garden Manager for Bush Community Garden of Hope.
“It’s about much more than just acquiring a piece of land. We learn how to test the soil as well as choosing the best location for planting,” said Estrada.
Once those who will serve as garden managers get their training, they eagerly share what they’ve learned with anyone in the community who is interested in becoming involved.
Many of the gardens serve a third purpose in addition to providing beautiful scenery and fresh produce for their communities. They also serve as teaching gardens wherein children are involved in the process of learning how to garden and grow produce, flowers or even improving scenic landscapes, depending on their interest.
“The garden across the street was established as a teaching garden that the children of this community are responsible for,” said Estrada.
“This Monday, November 14, we will be installing a hoop house-a condensed and more portable version of a greenhouse- that the children will be responsible for,” said Estrada. The children get to choose what they want to plant. Help will come from the teachers and the entire community. However, the children will know that this is their responsibility. It’s a great way for them to learn the art of gardening from an early age.
Bush Community Garden of Hope
Teaching children is just one way NeighborSpace lends a hand to the community to ensure that those who want to be a part of the community have every opportunity to participate.
“Our gardeners are the proverbial “bread and butter” of our work,” says Willey. “We couldn’t do nearly as much as we do with our gardens without their amazing leadership. We are really lucky to have tapped into such a committed and vibrant group of folks.”
Some residents of the community gardens get so involved, they actually take on the responsibility, including paying a small fee, to preserve spaces or plots that are solely the responsibility of that individual. Some individuals want to become more involved in this home grown method of healthier eating by growing their own produce. Securing their own spots in the community garden ensures that they have their own supply of produce at hand.
“This year, we are proactively spreading the word about dividing up these two lots of land into 6 individual plots. As soon as we know who the active participants will be, we’re going to get to work on this next phase of the garden,” says Estrada. It’s still a community venture, but some people feel more of a responsibility if they feel they have a real stake in the garden’s success.
Conversely, if an individual or group of individuals-as is the preference of the NeighborSpace organization-decide to establish a garden in their community from scratch, the costs would be much higher.
“The fees range from very little to several thousand, depending on what is necessary for the land to become a viable garden in the community,” said Willey. If the plot of land that is proposed for acquisition and use for a community garden has no viable soil, there are no raised beds, gates, or tools to do the work, the costs can go as high as several thousand. When that is the case, the hope is that the person(s) who want to establish the garden in their community make a commitment and take on a leadership role. An important part of that leadership role is fundraising. Helping to build infrastructure is a large part of the role of a garden manager.”
NeighborSpace provides the resources for the community to grow their own produce or beautify their community, but each of these spaces tend to take on a life of their own.
“The wonderful thing about these open spaces is that they’re open in many ways. People come to them for a lot of different reasons,” says Ehren Dohler, intern at NeighborSpace.
“There’s a lot less prescription for what you have to do at these gardens. ” Of course you’re growing things, but these community gardens are also a source of real community for those that choose to get involved.
“Some of the gardens have potlucks, some of the gardens have performances, some of the gardens are a place to meet and hang out,” says Dohler. “The awesome thing about the gardens being community-managed is that you can come and get whatever you need personally out of the garden.”
In this way, the gardens truly become what you make of them much like many things in life.