Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Jack and the Beanstalk

posted by chicago pop

Forwarded by an Honest and Honorable reader:

From: Jack Spicer
Date: Mon, Oct 12, 2009 at 8:56 PM
Subject: community garden demolition

Dear 61st Street Community Gardeners and Friends --

Most of you now know that the University of Chicago intends to demolish the community garden at 61st Street and Dorchester Avenue shortly after Halloween. Many of you have responded to the news. You have expressed sadness at the potential loss and frustration and disappointment with the University. A number of you also asked questions that I will try to answer.

But first, Jamie Kalven has interviewed many gardeners in their plots at the garden. The video of the interviews, The Garden Conversations, is now being published, a few conversations per day, at www.invisibleinstitute.com. If you would like to be interviewed or have thoughts you want to share with Jamie, please contact him at com>. Please pass this site to as many people as you can. The "conversations" tell the real story about the value of the garden.

And second, in today's Tribune Dawn Trice talks with gardener Deb Hammond about how the community garden has affected her life. Here is a link to the story:

And now the questions:

Is it really "essential" to use the garden for construction staging?

No, I doubt it's essential. Maybe "convenient" and it would probably save a little money, but the CTS building, a block away, could certainly be built without demolishing the garden. Contractors build skyscrapers in the Loop without even blocking the public sidewalk. Any independent professional construction manager could verify that the garden site is not essential to constructing the CTS building. We would encourage the University to submit the issue to an independent professional.

Is the Chicago Theological Seminary causing the demolition of the garden?

No, they made a verbal agreement with the UofC that no harm would come to the garden as a result of their new building being built. They were looking forward to having the garden as a neighbor for their sustainable building. The University unilaterally withdrew from that agreement. We've spoken to the new CTS dean, Alice Hunt, and found her to be honest and honorable. I think CTS has done what it can do to protect the garden from the UofC's construction project. I plan to attend the CTS groundbreaking on Thursday as a friend and (current) neighbor.

Isn't it UofC's private property, and can't they do anything they want?

The garden site certainly is their property and they have generously let us use it for the past ten years. We had hoped the contribution the garden has made to the community would be apparent, and the University would act as a good neighbor and allow the garden to live on. Good neighbors and good will are valuable things, not to be wasted. But we had also hoped they would see the garden as serving their own best interests by enriching the neighborhood where their students, staff and faculty want to live.

What's the real reason the UofC is demolishing the garden?

I don't know. I doubt it's a practical decision based solely on construction convenience. The social fallout -- unhappy gardeners, neighbors, students, and faculty; skepticism about the UofC's commitment to sustainability and to living convivially with its Woodlawn neighbors; bad press; etc. -- far outweighs the temporary convenience. It's more likely that it's a policy decision from the Office of Civic Engagement and from the President. But I don't know what their real reason is or what message they intend to send. It remains a mystery.

-- Jack Spicer

Please check the garden website, www.61streetgarden.com for updates. You can make comments or ask questions there at "info."

I hope you enjoy "The Garden Conversations" at: www.invisibleinstitute.com.

I'm told there is a Facebook group at: "bulldozers versus 61st Street Community Garden"


Anonymous said...

Cool documentary idea! Maybe they saw the documentary about South Central Farm in LA.

The www.61streetgarden.com site doesn't seem to exist...

I hope they're working hard to find a new location and get the topsoil moved so it isn't a complete loss.

nate said...

The website is 61streetgarden.org.

I still think it's too bad the university is doing this. Weighing the two sides against each other -- beautiful long-standing community garden at the edge of the university community vs. a place to park for a contractor for two years while they construct a building -- seems like a no brainer.

Is there a new location? A destination for the topsoil?

Elizabeth Fama said...

I dunno, Nate. I admit I know nothing about the garden, other than having walked through it once. But isn't it possible that people underestimate the difficulty of being landlord over such a thing? Aside from the opportunity cost of the land (located in an area across the Midway that the U of C is actively expanding into) there's an obvious liability problem. As a small fer-instance: my friend encountered an unstable person there. She was lucky that there was one other gardener she could just see at the far end, and she was able to join her until the guy left. There are tall plants in the garden by the end of the summer, and it's a large plot of land, surrounded by buildings that are empty at night -- as wholesome as it appears, it's the kind of place I'd tell my kids they shouldn't spend time in alone. Aren't there other potential problems I'm not even thinking of? What if a gardener hurts himself? What if a gardener's toddler (or a neighborhood child) drowns in the water tub near the entrance? What if the soil has high heavy-metal content? There are dozens of ways the University has exposed itself by being the landlord.

For outreach purposes, it would be better for the University to buy a vacant lot somewhere for back-taxes, donate it to a community organization, install a nice plaque to commemorate its generosity, and then step back. Way back.

LPB said...

I noticed that Spicer did not address the question of alternative sites for the garden in his Q&A. What sites are they investigating? When might a move take place?

nate said...

@Elizabeth: Ha, I haven't even walked through it once! Just biked by on my way to the market and Backstory. Those are great points - I think the one urban farm I've tended (in DC) was part of a standalone nonprofit, and my friend who had the plot surely had to sign waivers of some kind before settling there.

The 61st garden is bigger than I thought, looking via Google's satellite view. There's a decent-sized lot (that may have been developed since the last flyover) at 62nd and Kenwood, but the big spaces are all down on 63rd. Would be pretty amazing to turn one of those blocks into something the community could use better.


chicago pop said...

Here are a few questions missing from this Q & A:

1) What are we doing to demonstrate true sustainability by eliminating our dependency on the University?

2) What are we doing to replicate this wonderful agricultural-economic-social phenomenon in other areas of the Woodlawn that may be even more in need of the multiple benefits it provides?

3) Why has so much energy been spent explaining how wonderful this one particular spot is, when that seems to undermine the possibility of accomplishing anything comparable elsewhere, in other communities?

chicago pop said...

4) What are we doing to make sure that SOME form of community garden exists SOMEWHERE in the neighborhood after the University reclaims their land?

Or are our leaders playing an all-or-nothing game?

mchinand said...

5) What criteria are they using to find a new site for the garden. Location? Size? Cost to use the land? Safety? etc.

erith1 said...

@Elizabeth Fama - Your point goes toward what everybody already suspects...that the University has a lot of other reasons to get rid of the garden besides "construction staging" (particularly that they want to do something else with that land, or, like you said, liability issues). But if that is the case, why don't they just say that? Not saying it makes them come across as sneaky and dishonest. It's like looking over all your great arguments, and then selecting the flimsiest one to take a stand behind.

@Chicago Pop - Your comment seems to imply that nobody is expending any effort into finding an alternate location. Do you know if this is true? I assume that people are in fact working on this angle, but I haven't spoken to any of the major players about it. As a gardener I am dying to know how this is all going to play out. I guess your assumption is that if they were trying to find places, they would be talking about it. I don't know why one necessarily follows from the other.

For what it's worth, I don't see anything objectionable in this letter whatsoever. No rabble rousing, no line in the sand declarations.

As with all of my garden comments, I will just conclude with the comment that, in my opinion, this blog would be pro-garden if it wasn't for the involvement of it's public enemy #1, Jack Spicer. Meaning, the objections are personal, not logical. We've seen no obstructionist behavior, and I would certainly consider more gardens in Hyde Park and less construction, progress. Despite HPP's best efforts to depict things otherwise, nobody has staged any protests or chained themselves to any trees, or done anything a reasonable adult wouldn't do for something they loved (well, writing in to the Herald could be debated as reasonable I suppose, but certainly sending emails is harmless enough).

Aren't people allowed to question a decision, or voice an objection?

chicago pop said...

I will just conclude with the comment that, in my opinion, this blog would be pro-garden if it wasn't for the involvement of it's public enemy #1, Jack Spicer. Meaning, the objections are personal, not logical.

Proof of this, please? You ignore the 5 questions above, which have been raised repeatedly on this blog. These are as legitimate, and "logical", as any of the arguments put forward by any of the folks questioning the University. In fact, they are far less sentimental. And they have nothing to do with any given individual.

Your comment seems to imply that nobody is expending any effort into finding an alternate location. Do you know if this is true? I assume that people are in fact working on this angle, but I haven't spoken to any of the major players about it.

That's exactly what it is meant to imply, because no one or source has indicated otherwise. Unless there is mind-reading software somewhere that we can download for free, we are unfortunately limited to the facts as they are made available to us.

Aren't people allowed to question a decision, or voice an objection?

Absolutely. That's what we're doing here. There are 5 questions above that don't fit with your model of irrational argumentation motivated by personal animus. They are the same questions that have been asked since we first posted on this topic, and the same questions that have not been answered since then.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Erith1, You say that we're prejudiced against Jack, but I actually think there's a double-standard in your comment: on the one hand, the University makes itself seem to be hiding its real motives if it doesn't disclose whatever "true" reasons it might have for closing the garden, but on the other hand the pro-garden representatives (who may or may not be working behind the scenes) don't have to announce what steps they're taking to find a replacement.

If the University announced that liability factored into its decision, the gardeners would of course leap to offer signed waivers. I can totally understand if the U. doesn't want to go there. I wouldn't call that sneaky, I would call that not wanting to get into a protracted discussion.

As far as buildings versus gardens go, I'm probably an outlier on the blog staff in thinking that, in fact, produce gardens should take second place to buildings. We can't sustainably feed the whole planet with everyone practicing subsistence farming in little plots here and there. It's not even "green" if you take the model to the limit, as far as I can tell.

Anonymous said...

There are HUGE vacant lots along 63rd between Woodlawn and Ingleside! Blocks long empty space!

Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if the garden could actually expand in the process of moving, obtain independence from the university, maybe even do a Blackstone Bike Works kind of thing with gardening workshops, sustainable farming and healthy eating and nutrition classes for adults and kids?

Come on gardeners! You're making a mistake letting JS run the show because it looks like, based on the facts, that no matter how much he tries to demonize the U, the current location is going away. Nobody cares who the good guy and who the bad guy is... it's not about that. This political game is not winnable. And I know I'll be really bummed if the garden can't be resumed in a new location because I strongly believe in its particular cause.

chicago pop said...

Elizabeth, I'm going to surprise you and say that I agree with you when you write that "produce gardens should take second place to buildings."

Hyde Park/Woodlawn needs more construction. Period. More people, more business. The fact that there are less of either than there used to be means that the carrying capacity of the land is being wasted, as are the tax dollars that go to support the services and infrastructure in underpopulated areas.

Community gardens can be a part of the eventual rebuilding of these areas, but the current level of discourse around the 61st St garden shows no sign of this kind of practical, long-term mentality. Land needs to be acquired, non-profit organizations need to be established.

Community gardens are nice, and they certainly have a role to play as supplements to our diets, but cities are not farms and to pretend that they are would result in tremendous wastes of energy as human settlement became spread out around them.

It's far greener for a human settlement to be densely organized and to import its food from a short to moderate distance than to turn what was once a dense urban settlement like Woodlawn into a farm.

chicago pop said...

Thank you Nate for the link to google earth pics of the vacant land along 63rd St.

A picture says a thousand words:


And as Greg says, here is a wonderful opportunity to surmount this challenge and actually do something big and make this gardening thing a real, long-term, practical reality.

LPB said...

In this week's Herald, there is a little blurb about the closing of the community garden. It also indicates that alternative sites are under consideration.

"A new location for the community garden has yet to be determined, but several sites are under consideration, according to Jack Spicer, garden manager."

Why not communicate the new potential garden sites and give everyone something to look forward to?

I'd love to see the garden move to a new site (especially along those empty tracts by 63rd) and continue to provide the benefits that the gardeners enjoy.

Having said that, I'm also losing patience with some gardeners who would rather spend their time publicly lamenting the loss of the garden. I don't find that attitude constructive.

erith1 said...

@Chicago Pop - Why does Jack Spicer or anybody have to answer any questions posted on some blog? Especially if most of the people discussing the issue on that blog don't even have ties to the garden? Why is anybody required to make announcements from the rooftops about anything they're doing? As a gardener, he might owe me some explanation, but I haven't asked him. Has anybody asked Jack to answer any of those questions? So, in the lack of any information on the topic whatsoever, why would you assume the worse? In my opinion, you assume the worst because it's Jack Spicer. I don't know, I guess I just have a more optimistic view, that people are actually working on things, even though they aren't telling me. If I assumed everything I don't know about isn't actually happening, then not much would be happening in the world.

@Elizabeth Fama - Totally different. The University has stated a motive. If they know that motive is false, then they are lying, or at least obscuring the truth. The garden representatives have made no claims whatsoever about finding a replacement garden. It would only be the same if they said they were working hard to find a location, but actually weren't. I can't say someone is being sneaky just because they don't post on a blog their every movement. It's quite possible that there are people with tons of information on the subject who don't know what a blog is, and nobody has asked them to share. Or, it is also quite possible that they are giving up to the second updates to some people, just not to you and me.

You guys are arguing the merits of a garden vs. a building. I can't disagree that building wins in that case, but that is not the case before us. The case is a garden vs. a temporary construction staging area. In that case, I'll take a garden.

erith1 said...

@Greg - Oops, forgot to address you. When has JS demonized the U in relationship to the garden? Also, not sure if you are a gardener or not, but there are such workshops currently. As to 63rd street, I don't know who owns those lots. Are they willing to donate them to a good cause? 0:-) It's hard to be in the position of the garden, depending only on someone's good graces and being kicked around and unwanted.

chicago pop said...

@ erith1: It's hard to be in the position of the garden, depending only on someone's good graces and being kicked around and unwanted.

Exactly. Which is why if this enterprise aspires to anything more than a mildly utopian hobby, it would be more publicly and seriously engaging in ways to gain independence and viability.

erith1 said...

"if this enterprise aspires to anything more than a mildly utopian hobby"

Whoa, who said anything about aspiring to more than that? :) I can barely find the time to tend my mildly utopian hobby!

chicago pop said...

@ erith1: Why is anybody required to make announcements from the rooftops about anything they're doing?

Indeed. You said it. Applies to both Spicer AND to the U. I think the double-standard thing is still a problem in this line of reasoning. Why debate at all? I don't see how this position helps you, other than to dodge questions raised in public debate in the same way you think the U is dodging gardener questions.

This matters because, like all public affairs, this has indeed become a public debate. And in public debate, we ask and respond to questions. This blog plays a part in that. To suggest that so-and-so is not a gardener, that this is a sort of "private affair" and therefore non-gardeners have no right to speak on the matter is absurd, especially considering that the garden is not your property.

chicago pop said...

@ erith1: Returning to you point that no no one has to answer anything, least of all a few questions posed to the pro-garden leadership, in an effort to shape public debate.

But again, I fear you entertain a double-standard. Consider fact that since last spring, there has been a rather extensive media campaign that has involved, not just letters to our humble Herald, but contributions to the Huffington Post and the Tribune, as well as several informational websites and internet listserv, from which the letter in the above post was taken.

These all represent, together, a fairly comprehensive attempt to shape public opinion. Absent from this comprehensive attempt to shape public opinion, is any serious information about a Plan B.

Now, LPB does us the favor of pointing to a small bit in the Herald that suggests that, according to Jack Spicer, there IS a Plan B. But you don't know much about it, nor do I, nor too many others, because it is not part of the media campaign. The "other people" who you have confidence are "working on it" have not maid this a visible component of their activity, for whatever strategic reasons.

So it's not just the U that is playing around here and not being straightforward with their intentions. There's not a serious debate going on about how and where to relocate a garden because the leadership doesn't want one. To quote the letter above, "But I don't know what their real reason is or what message they intend to send. It remains a mystery."

My guess is it lends an air of firmness and intransigence that the leadership is hoping will impress the U. But we know, from readers like you, erith1, that most gardeners are not so intransigent, so this strategy may not work.

erith1 said...

So the solution is simple: ask Jack and see what he says. You're implying Jack is refusing to answer questions that nobody ever asked him.

The U wasn't required to give any sort of explanation, but when someone asked them, they gave one. As far as I can tell, nobody has asked Jack. And now you're implying that he's doing something shady because he didn't come and tell you first. That's awfully entitled, and by the way, I seem to remember you blasting the Herald for just that approach with the Harper Court demolition.

And I never said non-gardeners shouldn't speak on the matter, perhaps I was misunderstood. What I was trying to say was, why would it occur to Jack Spicer or anyone to come to HPP and give them an info dump on the garden, a seemingly unrelated topic? How about inviting Jack to do a guest post, addressing the latest info on the search for free land?

The whole argument is kind of silly, since I'm arguing something I know nothing about. Maybe nobody is looking for land. Maybe nothing is being done at all. I have no way of knowing. But neither do you. So my point is, if nobody knows and neither of us is willing to get off our keisters and go find out, why would you assume that nothing is being done, and then write comments based on that unfounded assumption?

chicago pop said...


1)yes, the garden that you barely have time to work in is represented as a quasi-utopian project that has the potential to solve all sorts of problems. You should read some of what has been written on your behalf.

2)When has JS demonized the U in relationship to the garden?
JS demonizes the U in the letter above by doing exactly what this post was intended to call out -- propose a set of questions that cast all the agency with the other side as if there was nothing that could be done by any of the gardeners to envisage an alternative outcome. They are the bad guys because they are acting on us who are passive.

Obviously that's not the case, because a) there are things the gardening community could be doing to preserve some kind of garden, which is what the alternative series of questions in the comments highlights. These arent' being asked, not because all us reporters here at HPP haven't asked them, but because they don't serve the strategy that the garden leadership is currently following, which is to make the U look bad and then cut a deal in a back room.

3) I've said many times before, this isn't a newspaper. We offer a critique of local media and politics. I don't expect anyone to dump anything with HPP, but we do offer a critique of media campaigns like the one about the garden that has been going on for just under a year.

Anonymous said...

When has JS demonized the U in relationship to the garden?

Oh come on. :-) Neither of us is a fool here and everyone knows what is behind the repeated letters to the Herald, and all of JS's quotes in the same paper about not understanding why the University is doing what it is doing there. It's a bit more subtle then the usual Save The Point-esque shouting but JS is a smart guy and this is something that affects him directly and personally.

Most of the "causes" JS is involved in are less about the cause and more about JS vs The University. That's 100% the impression I got from the Doctor's Hospital debacle, which saddled the community with a worthless, unsafe, crumbling white elephant instead of a hotel to create local jobs. That's the impression I got when all the complaints started appearing that the University didn't properly announce to the public that they were starting demolition of Harper Court on a certain date (they actually did, but that's beside the point).

There's a lot of history behind these feelings. JS (and others) have practiced scorched earth and all-or-nothing politics before, often at the expense of the greater good and objectivity. In each case, the impression I get is that the point is to engage in a war of attrition with the University with the community in the middle.

Or, maybe I AM a fool. :-) It's conceivable.

I just think that JS and Jamie K. have had a significant amount of press in this matter and the overall message each time has been a stubborn refusal to accept the inevitable. I don't think it has been constructive, and that the desire to play martyr against the U is not constructive. I desperately want the garden to stay here! I'm not a gardener there but I'd love to work a plot and may do so if the garden can find a new location and I can figure out a proper schedule.

My own opinion is that the gardeners should form a non-profit or some kind of collective LLC, maybe in conjunction with Experimental Station, purchase some vacant land and restart the project. It may take some time and money but it can certainly be done. There may even be public money available for such a project (you never know) and the U already stated that they would try to help.

I do see in the Herald that JS says he's considering several new locations. I hope it works out!

Anonymous said...

So the solution is simple: ask Jack and see what he says.

This is a legitimate point. Would someone like to write a letter to the Herald, or else contact him directly and ask him to explain Plan B in greater detail?

Elizabeth Fama said...

Chicago Pop writes: ...the strategy that the garden leadership is currently following, which is to make the U look bad and then cut a deal in a back room.

Aha! Brilliant, C-Pop! That might in fact be why we're not hearing about the alternative sites they're investigating -- because they're busy pressuring the University to buy them the vacant lots that are under consideration. Losh! Am I a slow-poke to wonder this?

(I did wonder why Erith1 had asked if the owners of all the vacant lots on 63rd Street were "willing to donate them to a good cause." I thought, Is that what's expected here: free land?)

chicago pop said...

In response to the 'solution' mentioned above: time to write a letter to the Herald with some questions, if anyone is so inclined. You may steal shamelessly from anything found on this blog.

Richard Gill said...

I refer back to "Letter from an Old Goat," my September 20 post on this blog, in which I was critical of people in Hyde Park who regard other people's private property as community property. I'd say that's what's going on with the garden. Good grief, just because it grows vegetables doesn't entitle it to preempt someone else's use of their own land.

The Old Goat

edj said...

I wonder if one of the reasons that Spicer, et al do not want to move to another spot where he actually would have to take responsibility for ownership and potential liability.

It's different when you have to be the responsible party rather than the guy who basks in glory of the community garden on someone else's dime.

Richard Gill said...

".....on someone else's dime."

edj -

You got that right.

TractSeven said...

I spent many years in Hyde Park during my PhD at the University. I am sad to hear that the 61st garden will disappear. Gardening there was one of the best things in my life in Chicago. Creating a new space to garden would of course be wonderful, one can think of this moment as a real opportunity to do exactly that. But, that does not have to stop people feeling sad over something they cared about. We made friends there, some of us fell in love there too. It stays as one of the most beautiful places in my memories of Chicago.

I am further saddened to see the level of negativity in the comments. Someone writes "We can't sustainably feed the whole planet with everyone practicing subsistence farming in little plots here and there," as if this garden could only be conceived as part of a political/economic argument about how to feed the humanity.

The garden in my experience was a very open and inviting place. Almost every friend who visited me in Hyde Park mentioned how they wished they'd had something like that in their neighborhood - and not because they wanted to practice subsistence farming.

I would highly recommend everyone to go hang out at the garden. You may find the kind of a value in such a paradise that hasn't crossed your mind before, who knows?

I don't know much about the HP politics, but it was obvious to us that Jack Spicer was an amazing gardener who donated a lot of his time and energy. If the community could convince him to take leadership in creating new spaces in Woodlawn, that would be fantastic.

edj said...

"If the community could convince him to take leadership in creating new spaces in Woodlawn, that would be fantastic."

I think we all agree that if he would take the opportunity to create new spaces for gardening elsewhere it would be a good thing. The problem is that he wants to take leadership on things the community doesn't want. He may be an amazing gardener, but he's also an amazing obstructionist to several things that would allow those of us who live in Hyde Park now to build our fond memories.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I didn't mean that comment to sound negative about this particular garden, TractSeven. I absolutely understand how much joy it has given people. The group trying to save it has brought in the "sustainability" argument, not me. I was just answering that one particular point. I don't think arguing that the University shouldn't use that spot to stage construction or build another building because growing vegetables is a "greener" endeavor is a valid argument.

Georg said...

This whole string demonstrates why Hyde Park is so hopeless.

Thing is, when you depend on one institution to provide everything in this neighborhood, the whole neighborhood becomes a decrepit planned economy and everybody is a pleader and a dependent.

The Garden is a nice example. You'd think a lot of people collaborating in a community activity for over a decade would be worthwhile. But the bloggers on this site would tell them that, look, you were depending on the Univeristy for this. You were stupid to invest in this activity, because the University can do whatever it wants with the land. The best you can do is plead.

What the sponsors of this blog do not realize is that you cannot have true Hyde Park Progress if the U of C is spreading its sphere of ownership, even if it means well. It's just a command economy getting bigger and displacing everything else.

That's why HP will never have any dynamism. People who try to create autonomous businesses or organizations based on U of C largesse will always eventually get displaced by some planning imperative.

Frank said...

Georg, that seems to be exactly what Chicago Pop is saying about the need for independence from the University.

As for this post: I think that the "U of C destroys community" story is far too lazy. I suspect that Elizabeth Fama is right that they're also hoping to extinguish some liability. The gardeners lose, but it illustrates the need for them to have a piece of their own.