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:
- The University of Chicago owns the land.
- The people currently using the land as a garden do not own it.
- 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]
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.