My sister and I used to play adventure games in an empty lot next to our house. We'd pack backpacks full of peanut butter sandwiches and juice boxes and head into the overgrown field to climb over fallen trees, examine bugs and trek through the shoulder-high weeds. In suburban Ohio, the scariest thing we could come across on those expeditions was poison ivy.
In Chicago things are a bit different. Abandoned lots in cities don't hold adventure. At their best they're depressing; at their worst, they're dangerous. Until spring 2005, the lawn-sized patch of green outside the Logan Square Blue Line stop was fast becoming a waste bin for the standard cans, wrappers and cigarette butts, alongside more sinister trash like condoms and syringes.
An organization called Logan Square Walks decided to clean up the area and turn it into "Paseo Prairie Garden," a space where locals could tend plants, stroll pathways and take a seat in the shade to enjoy the square. Local activist and pro landscaper Laurie Tanenbaum spearheaded the garden design, choosing native prairie grasses and plants because the hardy greens are practically self-sustaining.
After a year of work on the garden with help from the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, they joined forces with archi-treasures, a nonprofit that was working on a community art/storytelling project next to the lot. Funding from LISC/Chicago and generous donations of materials, money and labor fuel the garden's progress. I was taken with the project when I learned about it at the Garden in a City show in May, and signed on as a volunteer for one of the first mornings of summer.
About 25 of us turned out at 9 a.m. that Saturday, most sporting rolled-up jeans and sandals and ready to get our hands dirty. We started by shoveling grass aside to make room for what would become brick footpaths through the garden. One path would be laid extra-wide to accommodate wheelchairs, Tanenbaum explained, as one of the project's aims was to provide a safe and inviting place for senior citizens at the neighboring Logan Vistas.
I'd almost forgotten how satisfying it is to jump on the handle of a garden shovel and feel the blade cut through the earth. Call it stress therapy, call it an upper body workout; I could feel a week's worth of stiffness melting out of my joints as I dug up clumps of ground and watched the pathways form. With so many of us digging, it took us less than 20 minutes to finish the job, and we moved on to our next task: moving a massive pile of mulch to various areas for planting.
This is where the work got tough. The sun blazed higher as we scooped shovelful after shovelful of mulch into wheelbarrows and took turns hauling the rich brown stuff around the garden. We were as sweaty as a bunch of Bikram-ites, and more than a few of us were sporting sunburns by the time we finished.
Still, scanning the scene as I guzzled a liter of Gatorade, I was beaming through my mulch-covered haze. Exhaustion and community spirit make for a serious high, and I'm proud I was able to contribute.
Green the streets! Whether you want to volunteer or spearhead your own project, here are some resources to get you started:
Paseo Prarie Garden still needs volunteers for garden maintenance and some new touches. Check out their schedule online.
LISC/Chicago grants money to all kinds of projects that will better Chicago's communities, from affordable housing to street murals to gardens. The central organization works with each community through a representative organization in that neighborhood, which helps decide what projects will be most beneficial and where the money should go.
GreenNet is a coalition of Chicago's greening organizations; it can hook you up with community gardening or other enviro-friendly projects throughout the city.
After four greener-than-average college years as a co-op dweller-turned-aspiring-permaculturist, Julia Steinberger finds it hard not to feel guilty about her one-bedroom apartment, daily commute and indulgence in the occasional dollar burger. She'd like to dream that she could live in a tent/treehouse/rabbit hole, but the truth is, she'd rather stay in the city while doing her best to leave a lighter footprint on the earth. You can contact her here.