Introducing The Garden Conversations

Tags: Experimental Station, The Garden Conversations, University of Chicago
What looks the strongest has outlived its term
The future lies with what's affirmed from under.
                                                    Seamus Heaney


For close to a decade, a diverse group of gardeners has cultivated a community garden at the corner of 61st Street and Dorchester Avenue on the South Side of Chicago.  Over time, they have transformed vacant land in a precarious area into a singular urban amenity.

The land on which the garden is located belongs to the University of Chicago.  The University made it available with the explicit understanding that use of the site for gardening was provisional.  It was always clear the day would come when the U of C would reclaim the land for its own purposes. 

Early this year, that moment arrived.  The University announced it intends to use the garden site as a staging area for construction of a new building for the Chicago Theological Seminary a block away at the corner of 60th and Dorchester.  It has set October 30th as the deadline for gardeners to vacate the site.

I speak as a gardener.  My wife and I are among the 135 households that participate in the 61st Street Community Garden.  We are a diverse mix.  Racial and class integration are the least of it.  The true diversity of the garden is at the level of individual experience, character, and sensibility.  The garden may look rural, but it is a quintessentially urban space where we savor difference on common ground. 

Over the past six months, several of us have sought to engage the University in conversations about possible alternatives that might preserve the garden.  While expressing our gratitude for use of the site and in no way contesting the University's right to do with its land what it sees fit, we have argued that its avowed commitments to "sustainability" and "civic engagement" would best be served by preserving the garden until the time comes to build at 61st and Dorchester.

These conversations have deepened relationships with several individual administrators--the administration is no more monolithic than the garden--but they have not produced any change in the University's position.

That position is in essence:  It's our land.  We want it back.  End of conversation.

Yet other conversations continue.  Autumn tends to be a reflective time for gardeners.  That is especially so this year for those who garden at 61st and Dorchester.  They are confronting not only the turning of the seasons but the disappearance of the garden.  Many have reached out to one another, struggling to find words for that which they have created together and been sustained by.

Like it or not, this gentle controversy has an inevitable soundtrack.  When a University spokesperson suggested that a possible post-construction use for the garden site is a parking lot, the words of Joni Mitchell's song "Big Yellow Taxi" came to mind virtually unbidden:

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

The image is overdrawn and unfair to the University.  It invites the sort of polarizing discourse we have been at pains to avoid.  The lines just before that catchy refrain, though, are resonantly on point:

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone

That is a mistake we don't intend to make.  The Invisible Institute is working on a documentary about the garden.  Toward that end, we have videotaped conversations with individual gardeners, speaking out of their 10' by 10' plots, in this autumnal moment before the garden is razed. 

This is a "live documentary" in the sense that we are making the garden conversations available while continuing to work on the larger project.  Beginning tomorrow, we will post one or more of the conversations daily until October 30.  They will be interlaced with occasional conversations with others who are not gardeners but have perspectives that may help illuminate the nature of the garden.

The purpose of this project is not to marshal arguments against the University's decision.  (I have done so elsewhere.)  It is not, in any direct sense, about the controversy.  It is about the garden.

We see this as an exercise in hope as well as grief.  Although we have been unable to dissuade the University from its course, we hold fast to the hope that we, and perhaps others, can learn from this situation.  Amid promising developments elsewhere--from the White House vegetable garden to innovative composting operations at elite universities to the proliferation of community gardens and farmers markets across the country--we should not underestimate the potential contribution of a well-documented negative example.  That, it appears, will be the final harvest from this lovely urban space that has enriched the lives of so many.