Mobile Organics - A Project Within The Projects
Chicago - November 2002
Cabrini-Green is an urban village that borders the wealthy Chicago neighborhoods of Old Town, Lincoln Park, and the Gold Coast. Aiming to provide low income housing for Chicagoans its construction began in the early 1940's. As the years passed, the poorly maintained area became better know as a haven for drug-dealers, murderers and crack houses - an eventual no-go zone for local police. A far cry from being the ultimate housing solution for the City's needy.
In August 2000 a 10-year plan was announced. A new, and according to many, long overdue downsizing and transformation of the infamous public housing project would ensue. But as the high rises are demolished and the new mixed income community is created, resulting plots of land sit idle, waiting to fall under the auctioneer's hammer.
This is the land the Resource Center wishes to embrace and convert - even if only on a temporary basis. Under Dunn's leadership the 30-year-old organization has developed the idea of mobile inner-city market gardens. Each garden is grown with organic ideals, titled after their first project the 70th Street Farm and headed up by Kristine Greiber. "Loan us an empty acre," comments Greiber, "and in three weeks we can throw down a fence, strip the ground, plant it out and begin to grow produce." An ideal fit for the vacant pods of land dotted around Cabrini-Green. The beauty of the idea? When the refurbished land is sold to developers, the Center relocates their people and their most precious commodity - the soil - to a new patch. Their only request is that they should not be asked to move amid a growing season.
The Cabrini site is the Center's fourth market garden and the first on the City's north side. Setting up shop at the busy and very visible intersection of Division and North Clybourne - an area that has played host to several homicides over the past couple months makes a bold statement to the community and to the city - their idea will work no matter where the location. But amidst an atmosphere of constant tension and violence the 70th Street's optimistic energy fuels new and hopeful community ideas. In front of the farm lies a modest triangle of land. This is the land that four local schools hope to use for a joint school garden in 2003. The schools' choice of location is perfect: the triangle is neutral territory in the geography of Cabrini's street gangs. None of the students will have to cross rival turf to visit the garden. From an agricultural point of view the garden's proximity to the farm will mean that the Resource Center's horticultural advice will be readily available and perhaps the team will be able to offer gardening as an alternative to gangbanging.
The idea of small-scale urban farming is nothing new. In England a similar plan gained momentum during the Second World War. Areas of common land were ploughed and families could lease a small parcel of semi-fertile earth called an "allotment". The concept of the allotment was to enable a family to bring to their table what the war prevented - fresh food. Back on this side of the pond, the organization forges its own war - a war against unemployment - a war in the name of urban transformation. A victory flag will only be raised when jobless and low-income families can be offered land to practically apply the Center's working model - producing flavorful fruits and vegetables destined for the city's green markets and elite restaurants. And therein lies the irony; even in the new millennium the poor will work the land to produce commodities for the wealthy. In this instance however, the workers - not the landowners will be the benefactors from their labor. It sounds like an idealistic project but in the summer months one acre of land will yield 18000 pounds of tomatoes. Additionally, snow peas, scarlet beans, mâche, arugula, turnips and carrots will flourish on either side of the best growing season. Even in the heart of winter, various lettuces can be grown when cold frames and floating row coverings (warming clothes) are utilized. Add to the equation that many crops are heirloom varietals, that are organically created and you have some valuable production.
There is no shortage of buyers of 70th Streets' crop. It may come with a few cents more attached to the invoice but chefs around the city clamber for the fruits of the farm's labor. Talk about a product with depth… a multifaceted delight is on hand. These cultivated jewels not only offer chefs a delicious, just harvested product to enhance their menu but a tasty morsel to embellish their press releases 'organic, sustainable, a community project, local food system' the buzz words that fuel food columns and fill restaurant seats.
So what is stopping the Center from securing the waste lands of Chicago? Certainly there is no shortage of fans or supporters. Money is the final ingredient that is needed to make this dream a reality. Through its concept of 70th Street Farms and the power of mobile organics the Resource Center will be able to change the way a city looks and thinks about food while providing sunshine and self respect to the unwaged…