Community, garden blossom

By HermineBloom

A 12,000-square-foot lot has been vacant behind the 4200 block of west Addison Street for as long as resident Ann Kauth can remember. On a map, the community that surrounds it is either considered Old Irving Park or Avondale. But Kauth, who has lived at Addison Street and Pulaski Road for eight years, isn’t quite sure what to call her community and neither are many other residents in the area.

That ambiguity was a motivating factor when residents sought to develop the Merchant Park Community Garden on the previously unused piece of land. Since June 2010, Kauth and her neighbors have been working to construct and gain political approval for a garden intended to grow vegetables, host barbecues and generally serve as a meeting place for the community—something they agree it lacks.

Currently, Kauth said they have 25 garden beds built and 10 of them are filled with soil. The ribbon cutting ceremony will take place on May 7.

Jessica Angus, whose house is a few feet from the garden, has been involved since the project’s inception.

“We bought a house in 2007, and I’ve found it difficult to build relationships with neighbors,” Angus said. “There isn’t a lot of activity happening. The Logan Square Neighborhood Association is way south of us, and we have Irving Park north of us. In our little community, I was so excited to get out and have a central meeting place for neighbors and do a real project together.”

Kauth was the one to originally approach Alderman Ariel Reboyras (30th Ward). After gaining Reboyras’ approval, Kauth went door to door handing out fliers with other interested neighbors to assemble a team to work on the project.

“I was the one who went to the alderman’s office, but we all conjured this up,” said Kauth, who works as an independent consultant in project design research.

“Everyone really wanted to do it, and we had a lot of interest and it excited people.”

From there, they got in touch with the nonprofit organization NeighborSpace to acquire the land. Since 1996, NeighborSpace has served as Chicago’s land trust for community gardens, according to Executive Director Ben Helphand. Its mission, he said, is to acquire and preserve community-managed open spaces on behalf of dedicated community groups. Projects range from vegetable gardens to scenic riverways.

“All the necessary ingredients were there,” Helphand said. “Good plan, community support, good piece of land and political support. Our board motioned to move forward with acquisition pending favorable environmental assessment.”

The piece of land is owned by the city, which Helphand said was ideal because most of the land Neighborspace acquires comes from the city originally.

“It’s much harder to acquire privately owned land,” Helphand added.

Once the plan was deemed desirable, Kauth said fundraising for the Merchant Park Community Garden began in January 2011. All Saints Antiochan Orthodox Church, 4129 W. Newport Ave., donated $1,000, and the team signed up for the Web fundraising platform to raise money for fencing, soil and fertilizer. Surpassing a goal of $2,250 by making $2,663 on the website helped finance startup costs, along with receiving donated plastic lumber from Enlace Gardens.

Every Saturday since early April, team members have been constructing beds and preparing the soil.

“We’re more than halfway there in terms of the actual physical part,” Kauth said.

Working on the project enables involved community members to develop and maintain relationships.

“This entire process exceeded any kind of expectation I could have ever had when I went into the alderman’s office to ask,” Kauth said. “I walk out of my house to walk to work, and I see people and chat. I know a huge amount of people [who] I had never met before.”

The benefit of being able to garden in a safe space, Angus said, is a great experience for her young son. A lot of Chicago residents, especially in a neighborhood like theirs, don’t have the space to grow their vegetables. Community gardens like the Peterson Garden Project, 2501 Peterson Ave., and Three Brothers Garden, 3938 W. Belle Plaine Ave., encourage community involvement and promote healthy eating in equal doses. The Merchant Park Community Garden will do the same.

“It’s a community garden in the literal sense,” Angus said. “It’s surrounded by homes, and it’s the perfect setup for families to get together in a common meeting place.

It’s a great place to host neighborhood parties, and there just isn’t a space for that right now.”

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