A striking motif plays through our conversations with gardeners. A number have observed that, within the boundaries of the 61st Street garden, they feel safe and at home in the city. They cite several reasons for this. The comings and goings of other gardeners. Activity generated on 61st Street by the Experimental Station and Carnegie School. The ring of large structures--steam plant, "chiller," AT&T facility, and U of C Press building--that seem, however blank their expressions, to look down protectively on the garden.
Taken together, though, these circumstances don't alter the fact that this is, by urban standards, a sparsely populated area. Long intervals pass when no one is around. And during months the garden is dense with growth, a violent presence could conceivably hide in the green and pull a victim out of sight.
The mystery is deeper still. For several gardeners, women, have said they feel safe in the garden, even when alone, and even at night. Putting aside questions of prudence, there is something worth exploring here.
The garden stands apart from the world yet open to it. Its boundaries are distinct but not enforced by high fences, locked gates, threatening signage, or other tokens of "security." It is a welcoming, undefended space. To enter the gate is to be embraced by a certain quality of presence. Even in the absence of other gardeners, the residue of their attention is immediate and consoling.
Is it possible that the care invested by many hands, tending their 10' x 10' plots over the years, has created a secure sanctuary in the midst of the turbulent city?
Public safety is a paramount concern for the University of Chicago. It has long maintained a large police force and employs a range of strategies to enhance the security of its campus. In light of those investments, one would think it would take pains to understand the phenomenon of the 61st Street garden: on what was once urban wasteland a diverse array of neighbors have come to feel safe, at home, and connected to one another.
If the garden is destroyed so the site can be used temporarily for construction staging, then reverts to a vacant lot or a parking facility, the net loss for public safety will be significant. That loss will not be offset when the U of C rings the site with blue-lit emergency phones such as it has installed at the four corners of the Press parking lot.
Self-fulfilling prophecies play a role in both realities and perceptions of public safety. To the degree that people step out into the city with confidence, they may behave in ways that contribute to their safety. By the same token, if they are governed by fear, they are likely to behave in ways that sustain what they fear.
In saying this, I don't want to be misunderstood as minimizing the realities of violent crime and its impact on individuals, families, and communities. The question is: how we are to live in such a world? How might we--daily, non-heroically, effectively--resist violence?
Recently, in another context, I wrote:
There are large violent acts . . . but no large healing acts. The work of healing is a matter of small acts of attention and care sustained over time.
Those words arose out of my efforts, as a writer and activist, to understand and practice non-violence. I didn't realize at the time that I was describing the garden.
The Garden Conversations