My last post was about the dark night of this neighborhood’s soul. I’ll have to go back to that dark night again as I write, but you should know that the worst of it ended for us about two years ago. I’ll explain that later, probably soon. And I don’t mean that all the danger has ended, but something else has begun. We made a garden.
The corner of St. Louis and McLean has been a gang/drug selling corner since the 1960s. The neighborhood and the cops have been trying to clean it up for almost that whole time. Trying to get rid of a long established sales point is not easy. Buyers know where it is and just keep showing up, ready to buy. So the gangs just keep showing up to sell. There’s a great deal of money at stake. To make things worse, there was a vacant lot on the southwest corner of the intersection. For ten years, after the building at that location burned to the ground, the double lot was a home to weeds, junk trees, trash . . . and gangbangers.
Then Michael, my friend Mac, and our neighbor Olga decided to make a community garden. They were joined by some people they’d met at the CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) meetings–Libby, Sean, Gin, Beth, James, and others. They wanted the vacant lot as a garden site, but it took awhile to get permission from the owner, and then he agreed to let the garden group have it only until he sold it. The group agreed.
Cleanup began in May. Creating beds and planting happened on Memorial Day in the sweltering heat. And the rest, as they say, is history. Amazingly, everyone in the neighborhood immediately recognized that the garden was, as Michael put it, gang Kryptonite. All the neighbors felt free to come onto the lot, sit on the stumps we provided under the magnolia, plant things in the garden when no one else was around, including tomatoes and a small blue pinwheel. Parents who otherwise kept their children in their own backyards allowed the kids to come down to the garden.
The gangbangers stood and watched. Sometimes, they talked to us as we worked, but they did not come onto the lot.
One day early on, I was talking to a former gangbanger I knew who had got a job so he would be allowed to see his kids. Let’s call him Joe. As we talked, a current gangbanger–let’s call him Jack–came up to join us. Joe and I were talking about fences. We hadn’t put any up, and I explained that some of the kids were worried about the garden. About someone hurting the garden.
Jack, who is big and tough and not the sharpest tack in the box, immediately said, “Why’d anybody hurt this? This is good. This is a good thing.” Shades of Martha Stewart.
Joe looked at me and then at Jack. “Young ones,” he said. “You know, young kids.” We both knew this wasn’t about crazy young kids, but there are a lot of things that don’t get said when you’re talking with gangbangers.
“Oh, yeah,” said Jack. “Kids. But you don’t wanna put up a gate. I hate gates. There’s gates everywhere. You put up gates, nobody can see the good things. They just feel shut out. No gates means trust.” I am not making this up. That’s what he said, in words I made a note of as soon as I got home.
We never did put up any fences. Or gates. And the gang guys never came into the garden.
Then one day it looked as though the Kryptonite might be losing its power. Mac and I were sitting in the garden one morning talking about our next work session when a teenager and his pregnant girlfriend came into the garden. Mac and I smiled and kept on talking. They sat on stumps not far from us and started passing back and forth a Swisher Sweet. The boy tried to start up a conversation. Mac and I were pleasant but went on with our discussion. Then, under the smell of the little cigar, I was 90 percent sure I smelled dope. Mac and I got up to leave and I turned to the boy, who had introduced himself as, say, Charlie.
“Charlie, I’m going to talk straight to you. Nothing bad can happen in this garden, do you understand? It’s important that the parents let their kids come down here, and they won’t if bad things are happening here. Okay?”
He nodded and they left the garden in one direction as we left in the other.
It wasn’t much, but I felt I had to follow up on it. So, the next day, when I saw the gang leader, let’s call him “Jerry,” I invited him to come into the garden to talk with me. I explained what I was concerned about.
“I know that,” he said. “I been keeping the guys out. This place is for the kids. I tell them that. This place is for the kids, not you. You go over to the park.” Then he went on to tell me that he wouldn’t bring his own kids into our neighborhood and said a few very frank things about gangbanging and violence.
We shook hands and he went back to his group. Later that day, I was limbing up junk trees on the west side of the lot. Jerry crossed the lot and asked if I needed some help. I told him I only had one pair of loppers, but thanks anyway. He hasn’t come into the garden since.
I don’t think we could have made the garden two years ago, when the worst of things were happening. But the gangs came back this year after a quiet year and a half, and the people were ready for some way to show that it was not okay, that this was their place. In fact, the day I was limbing up those junk trees, two teenaged girls were weeding the sun garden a little ways away. A mother went by pushing a stroller and said something I didn’t hear. I went over and asked Veranice and Vanessa what she said.
“She thanked us,” said Veranice, “for making the garden to show the gangbangers its our place before its theirs.”
Everybody knew. The garden wasn’t about tomatoes.
If there’s any point to this blog at all, it’s to say that people actually can reclaim their neighborhoods. The gangs do not always win. They’re nowhere near as powerful as people who are willing to keep fighting them. And the weapons are as varied as murals, 911 calls, visits to the alderman, CAPS meetings, and gardens.
And to give you a taste of the garden, here’s a little video of one of our early workdays.
If you want to see more about the garden, you can go to Green on McLean.