Sunday, April 5, 2009

Tempest in a Compost Pile: The Garden at 61st Street

posted by chicago pop

Short Version of Post

For those of you pressed for time, the short version of this post, dealing with the diplomatic kerfuffle over the destiny of the community garden at the northeast corner of 61st and Dorchester, can be reduced to the following three statements:

  1. The University of Chicago owns the land.
  2. The people currently using the land as a garden do not own it.
  3. Anyone other than the University making use of the land in question is a squatter, tolerated by the good graces of the true owner, and unless they have had the foresight to prepare for the day when the true owner would assert rights over the land (by either bidding to buy the land themselves, or seeking to buy property elsewhere), these folks are SOL, no matter how well-intentioned they are, nor how much you or I might like the vegetables they produce and the ideas behind what they're doing.

Long Version of Post

To reprise the story in its bare essentials: for about 10 years, people have grown accustomed to gardening on a plot of land, owned by the University of Chicago, directly to the north of the local institution known as the Experimental Station.

The Experimental Station, it will be noted, owns its land, a parcel on the southeast corner of Dorchester and 61st Street.

About the same time (1999), the University began the planning for what would emerge between 2002-2005 as its ambitious South Campus Plan, intended to satisfy the need for facilities expansion, but also to create a more welcoming and porous border between the University and the Woodlawn neighborhood south of the Midway.

In materials presented at community meetings in 2004, the land currently used as the community garden was clearly identified to be University property, and included within the boundaries of the South Campus project.

These are the kinds of signs in the wind that suggest what is likely to happen in the near future. There should have been no surprise, then, when in the spring of 2008, the University informed 61st Street gardeners that the University's consent to allow gardening was temporary; nor should there have been further surprise when, a year later, the University announced that the 2009 growing season would be the last one for gardening on the property.

What makes this story more interesting is the fact that it has not, and does not fit easily into the archetypal narrative of town-gown, little people-Big Institution conflict that grew up in the 1960s and has flourished ever since, liberally watered by the editorials of the Hyde Park Herald and richly cultivated by outspoken neighborhood activists.

The University's decision to reclaim the garden is driven by its plans to relocate the Chicago Theological Seminary from its historic location at 58th and University to land adjacent to the garden. According to a statement on the CTS's website, the University is performing a massive act of philanthropy by not only preserving and refurbishing the old and much-loved CTS building, but by erecting a new home for the seminary -- furniture included -- for free.

The new facility was made possible through a multifaceted agreement with the University of Chicago. Under the agreement, the university will purchase the existing CTS buildings and construct and furnish new facilities to the seminary's specifications. The total cost of the purchase and construction, including contingencies, moving costs, furniture and incidentals will be as much as $44 million. CTS will hold a 100-year lease on the new building at a rental rate of $1 annually.
If the University had not "saved" the Chicago Theological Seminary, the 61st Street garden might not need to be shut down. It would be nice if this were not the case, but even among the most worthwhile elements of the most progressive agenda, there are occasionally trade-offs, and this appears to be one of them.

Yet this outcome is rather curious, in light of certain garden advocates' self-understanding of just what it is they're up to. In a recent post on Huffington Post Chicago, Jamie Kalven makes a 2,000 word case for why the planning for relocating CTS to South Campus should accommodate the garden. There he argues that:

the constellation of community garden, farmers' market, wood-fired bread oven, and cafe has established the conditions for an active inquiry into the practical requirements of sustainable local food systems. [italics added]

And further:

In this time of economic distress and uncertainty, of massive dislocations and strenuous adaptations, this ongoing investigation will yield knowledge with direct implications for public policy. [italics added]

One wonders if one of the basic requirements of sustainable local food systems is not having the experiment aborted as soon as the landlord kicks you off. That's not very practical, it's certainly not sustainable, nor does it appear to recommend itself as a good policy precedent.

A lot of us like to garden, and buy organics and locally produced food. A lot of us are already convinced that industrialized agriculture in the United States is a deeply flawed and unsustainable system. It is petroleum, water, and chemical-input intensive and has a high carbon footprint; it is genetically disadvantageous for the local ecosystems in which monocultures are cultivated, the nutritional content of the food supply, and ever more scarce supplies of fresh water; and it is part of a system of food manufacture and distribution that is partially responsible for exploding health problems such as obesity and diabetes.

A lot of people already recognize these problems, and have some sense of what partial solutions might be. Local food production is one of them. And as with a lot of alternatives, whether they be technologies like battery or fuel cell powered automobiles, organic farming, or solar power, the trick is to get replicability and scalability -- that is to say, to make the trick you pull off on a plot of land in Hyde Park something that can be done in neighborhoods across the country to potentially feed millions of people, thereby scaling it up to the point where it will have real-world impact.

It would seem a major piece of this effort, if it is to have real-world implications at all, is taking seriously the idea that the first thing you need to do is to buy the land you cultivate. Then no one can boot you off, you don't have to persuade landowners with essays on spiritualistic metaphysics or attempt to guilt-trip the University. Then you can get on with the practical business of replicating and scaling up your "investigations."

That kind of experiment, it seems to me, would be truly putting your money where your mouth is.


Stephen Brandenburg said...

Does anyone know of any other community gardens on the southside?

erith1 said...

As a long time enjoyer and reader of this blog, I was very surprised at the amount of negativity towards the garden in this post. I am guessing it is due to the involvement of one Jack Spicer in the garden. Or maybe I am reading negativity into it since I am directly affected as a gardener.

Obviously, everything you’ve said is correct. I can’t speak for everybody, but the feeling I’ve gotten from the folks around the garden is not one of outrage or surprise at all, which is what this post implies. As you’ve stated, we all did know that this was coming. However, just because something is inevitable, doesn’t mean we can’t be disappointed when it actually happens. I’m certainly not upset at the University for taking back their land, and I do appreciate what time we had (very limited for me since we’re only going into our second year in the garden). I know that many of the gardeners feel the same way.

There are a couple of things that strike me about the whole thing. 1) According to the letter from the University, the garden will not be used for the seminary but simply as a “staging area” for construction equipment. Certainly, they could build something there in the future, but for the time being they are removing the garden for a use that is extremely short term. 2) The seminary will be a “green” building. There is so much irony in removing a public garden to build an environmentally friendly building. 3) The garden fit so nicely with the new Farmer’s Market!

Anyway, you are right in saying that the University has done nothing wrong here, and I think most of the gardeners would agree with you. But we are still sad at the passing of such a nice institution (as opposed to say, the co-op which I do not miss in the slightest).

chicago pop said...

erith1: if I implied a sentiment among the gardeners that is not their own, then I appreciate the correction. I'm not surprised if I need to assure readers that this post is not directed against garderning, gardeners, or community gardening per se. As the last paragraphs make clear, I think the goals behind these effort in general are good ones.

The post is written pretty much in response to Kalven's piece and the claims made in his essay. If the issue of sustainability is to be taken seriously - as that essay implies it has been at the garden - then issues like property ownership, squatting, and replicability must be front and center. In his essay, they are not. Otherwise collective activities like community gardening will remain pleasant activities for those who engage in them, but will not live up to the standards of practical import and policy-ready examples that Kalven claims are met at 61st St.

To take an example from the history of feminism: while there were many cases of educated, financially independent, and sometimes politically powerful women in the last few centuries, it was not until social conditions allowed for a "room of one's own" that truely significant evolution towards gender equality became possible.

A sustainable community garden likewise needs a "room of it's own." Otherwise, the present issue has the potential to become yet another case of entitlement claims made an institution that has already been very generous and has bailed out other, more established institutions.

Richard Gill said...

erith 1 -

Chicago Pop was more reserved in his post than I would have been. The essay in Huffington Post comes across as the Hyde Park knee-jerk sense of entitlement that makes people roll their eyes, or even laugh out loud. The essay would have us believe that the gardeners are doing something good and noble, so they should be exempted from the rules of the real world, and the University should modify its own plans (which might also be regarded as good and noble) to accommodate the gardeners. Modification of construction plans costs money, but that doesn't seem to register on some people, or the attitude is that the owner should gladly do without the money.

Chicago Pop is correct, that any experiment in sustainability needs to be more securely situated than informally squatting on or amidst private property that is ripe for development. Hyde Park has a rich history of people knowingly using others' real estate (perhaps even trespassing) for parking, gardening, whatever, and then claiming some kind of right or say-so when the owners have their own plans for the property. "Su casa, me casa," to reverse an old saying.

The University is being, and has been, more than generous with the gardeners. Instead of whining, the gardeners should simply thank the University and then go about the business of (pardon the pun) looking for new digs.

Anonymous said...

As a proponent of local economies and local food production I was pretty sad to hear the U needed to reclaim this land for construction purposes. But, I did note that they have very generously offered to help the gardeners find new digs and even agreed to move the existing topsoil to the new location (that will not be cheap).

Since the University is pretty much THE 900 pound goilla around here, I'd really like to see them back a serious urban gardening program. I don't know anything about the financial feasibility of such a project, that's just me wishing.

We do have plenty of unused, vacant lots in areas like Washington Park and Woodlawn. And I would really love to be able to buy food that isn't grown in China and soaked in G-d knows what pesticides and chemicals.

erith1 said...

Richard Gill –

Apparently you aren’t as reserved as Chicago Pop, since you’ve said what he only implied! If C-pop’s article is attacking Jamie Kalven, I’ve got no problem with that. I don’t know Mr. Kalven from Adam. But to act as if he speaks for everybody, or to use blanket statements calling the gardeners “whiners”, becomes an attack on the gardeners rather than a rebuttal to Mr. Kalven. Aside from this one article, I honestly haven’t heard anybody complaining or doing anything other than going “about the business of looking for new digs”. In fact, I'm not even sure where the notion that we were whining came from, so I'm assuming it is this one article. Maybe there are people protesting somewhere that I don’t know about, but assuming they are the majority opinion is the same as assuming the Herald speaks for all of Hyde Park.

I’m sure there are some people who see the garden as some sort of revolution of sustainability, equivalent to the history of feminism. Maybe Mr. Kalven is one. But for me (and I’d bet most of the gardeners) it is just a place for me to meet my neighbors, grow some delicious tomatoes, and give my condo-raised daughter a tiny square of green space to call her own. The garden / farmers market / Backstory cafĂ© is one of the only areas where I interact with people from Hyde Park. Maybe some people use the Point as such a gathering place, but it is a long way from Woodlawn and, no joke, I have never been there.

So, as a gardener who reads the blog, I thought I should speak up and let you know that we are not all whiners, we are not all descending on the University with torches and pitchforks, and we are not all calling for the University to change their plans. But I bet we are all sad and disappointed our garden won't be around anymore, whatever the reason.

And if you don’t stop lumping us all in together, I will start assuming Hans Morsbach is the official spokesman for this blog! :)

chicago pop said...

erith1's point is well taken, and underlines some things that I should have been more clear about in the post. Not all the gardeners or supporters of the 61st St. garden should be lumped togther as espousing the ideas and arguments in Kalven's post. (Although it strikes me that Mr. Kalven's post does attempt to speak for the collective experience, whether or not successfully is an open question) Again, the post on this blog is not a critique of gardening or community gardening per se, but only certain elements of the case made for preserving it in its present location made by the essay on HuffPo.

Richard Gill said...

erith1 -

Yes, when I mentioned whining, I should have said "Kalven" instead of "the gardeners," as I didn't mean to lump all the gardeners together, nor to suggest that all of the gardeners agree with Kalven. He, not the whole group, wrote the post. Nonetheless, Kalven sure sounds like he thinks he speaks for everyone.

I stand by my observation that Kalven's remarks fit the stereotype of those who believe that, to accommodate their wishes, the world should just willingly move aside. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, it's Co-op deja vu all over again.

Elizabeth Fama said...

erith1, I love the visual image of the crowd with torches and pitchforks descending on the University.

Greg, regarding chemicals in food: vacant lots in Chicago (sanctioned or not as gardens) don't necessarily have an automatic leg up on insecticide-sprayed crops. Shouldn't urban soil be tested to make sure it's suitable for growing healthy vegetables? The lead count alone in Chicago soil is a concern. (For instance, a neighbor of mine just sanded the paint off their entire house [c. 1887] -- while a high wind was blowing in the direction of my next-door neighbor's magnificent vegetable garden. Heavy sigh.)

Anonymous said...

Good point about the soil quality. I'm not an agriculture expert but Phytoremediation would probably work wonders in most of the lots. It would take a couple seasons to clean up the soil. Or, people could just go in, excavate the existing dirt and rubble (and decades of urban junk buried in the dirt), and replace with new topsoil. Just two options, a slow cheap way and a fast expensive way, I'm sure there are others.

I think in many cases the soil may be of marginal quality, so some composting bins would be necessary anyway. But testing the actual soil for heavy metals, PCBs and other junk isn't hard or hugely expensive. You can even buy test kits to use at home.

edj said...

I wouldn't worry too much about vacant lots in this neighborhood. There may be some lead in the soil, but it's not like we have big oil spills or other toxics that have been dumped on the lots in really big amounts.

Urban farming is becoming more popular. I remember an article in the Tribune about a few Detroiters setting up urban farms on some of the lareger plots that have remained empty for years. The biggest problem there related to removal of rocks and pieces of concrete.

I think that most of the people in the urban garden issue have acted pretty responsibly, as evidenced by erith1. People are looking for a new plot and the university wants to move the soil to wherever it goes. I know its disappointing for the gardeners because of the inconvenience, but they seem to be acting in an understanding manner.

I do appreciate the thoughtful commentary (especially the irony of using the garden as a staging area for a green building) about the whole situation. I only wish the Herald would provide such good insights. I have to admit that a garden so close to a construction site isn't going to be a bed of roses.

It seems like yet again we have a few people who have another agenda trying to use a situation to foist their development (or non development) views on Hyde Park, Kenwood, and Woodlawn.

BG said...

While I agree that the University is under no obligation to change their plans, since the garden does not own the land, but simply uses it by the leave of the University. However, many of the gardens I've encountered across the country exist with this type of arrangement often on a permanent basis, and labeling the gardeners as 'squatters' implies that they have been gardening without the knowledge or approval of the University which doesn't seem to be the case at all. I don't think it is "whiny" of Mr. Kalven to inquire about the possibility of adjusting the University's plans for the construction staging area to provide even partial accommodation for continuing the current arrangement between garden and University. I think he said nothing in his article that implied that the ultimate decision belongs to anyone but the university(though I must admit I read it on the Invisible Institution site, and haven't reread it for any new material as it exists of HuffPo).

chicago pop said...

My primary objections to the Kalven piece were several assertions that I think were misleading. The first is that the University is approaching its planning as a "blank slate", ignoring what was there before. This is clearly not the case, since University ownership precedes the garden. A truly "blank slate" view would ignore or minimize this relevant fact, together with the value to the University of having this land available for other possible future uses.

Other objections were to the claims made for the practical and public policy import of this particular garden. The objections are not to gardening, the gardeners, or to the benefits of local agriculture. As I argue in the post, the most practical consideration of all in this case has been ignored: how to keep the thing going. This is a critique we make often at HPP. For real-world relevance of the sort claimed for this enterprise, you need to own the land. A serious experiment in this regard would explore ways to fund and manage the acquisition of urban parcels for the purpose of sustainable local agriculture. If that can't be done in the case of an institution that is clearly supported by many, than this experiment has no public policy relevance, and the argument made in Kalven's piece is invalid.

labeling the gardeners as 'squatters' implies that they have been gardening without the knowledge or approval of the University which doesn't seem to be the case at all.

As for the term "squatter", the term itself has nothing to do with knowledge or tacit approval of the landowner. It has to do with ownership and title. And it comes with an expectation that informal rights will have some sway with the owner. Please see the definition here.

Fargo said...

I learned about this local non-profit at the Flower & Garden show. There are some community gardens on the south side. Check out this list.

KEO said...

Why isn't the reason for the displacement of the CTS mentioned here? It seems odd to characterize the university as "saving" something that it is deliberately kicking off campus. And we're not all idiots--referring to the garden as a squatter is belittling in this context. Why can't the investment of time and energy in the garden at least be treated with respect?

chicago pop said...

Can you substantiate your claim that the University of Chicago "is deliberately kicking [the Chicago Theological Seminary] off campus"? As we're not idiots either, I'd like to know your understanding of the details, as they don't match my own.

As for respect, it sounds like there has been an abundance of that over the last decade or so, if you take respect to mean allowing other people to use your land for free. A reciprocal gesture of respect, which I suspect that many who use the land are willing to make, is to concede to the wishes of the property owner when their plans legitimately change and the land is no longer available for gardening.

Babs said...

As a gardener at 61st for several years, I'd like to point out that the garden is an asset to the community and the University could view it as such. It affords many people the opportunity to "work the land" which we aren't able to do in parks, or if we live in apartment buildings. Because I live in a highrise, I really value my plot of soil at the garden. It is a delightfully diverse ecosystem for folks to learn from and enjoy, with everything from birds to snakes to tons of bugs eating our compost. It is an oasis set into what is otherwise a relatively homogenous urban landscape of grass and trees.

If there were a building already on the site, the University wouldn't dream of demolishing it in order to stage construction. Most building projects stage their construction on their lot only. This isn't necessary, and that's why its so dispiriting. I just wish they would realize the asset that the garden is, even though it lacks 4 walls and a roof. It is a safe haven, because it is part of a larger community that looks over it, which will be a challenge in most other locations.

I don't have alot of fancy ideas about why the garden is important. It is simply a wonderful oasis and a shame that the University undervalues it so much. It is an asset to their community, and I hope they reconsider.

Nord said...

As for the term "squatter", the term itself has nothing to do with knowledge or tacit approval of the landowner. It has to do with ownership and title. And it comes with an expectation that informal rights will have some sway with the owner. Please see the definition here.

Did you read the definition to which you linked? It defines squatter as "one that settles on property without right or title or payment of rent." I would say that the University agreeing to let the gardeners use the land constitutes a "right." So no, they are not squatting, no matter how much you want to label them as such.

chicago pop said...

I would say that the University agreeing to let the gardeners use the land constitutes a "right." So no, they are not squatting, no matter how much you want to label them as such.

That's a fine argument, but unless it's backed up by the law, I'm not sure it gets you very far. I suspect it doesn't, which is why there is no court case here, and if there was any resistance to the University's action, the police would be within their rights to kick people off. You could hire a lawyer and try it out.

Nord said...

I don't see anyone resisting, or talking of resisting, nor is there any mention of a court case that I am aware of. The point is that the gardeners are not squatters and are not behaving as such.