For 15 years Karen Trout’s route home from work passed a large vacant lot strewn with garbage and car parts. She witnessed drug deals from her window and would find used needles there the next day.
“It was a huge plot of land, three city lots, and that amount of space attracts bad things. Around my block there was so much gun crime. Three people were shot behind my house in one summer,” recalls Trout, who lives in North Lawndale with with her husband and three children.
The corner lot on Avers Avenue and Cermak Road had sat empty for nearly two decades, until Trout and her neighbor, Laura Michel, couldn’t take looking at it any longer.
“We realized that we and many of our neighbors all had the same thoughts: It looked disgusting, it was bringing negative energy into our block, and wouldn’t it just be great if our kids could play there instead?” says Michel, who also lives on the block with her husband and three young children.
After failing to find the landowner, and with the blessing of their local alderman, their block took over the area and turned it into the Avers Community Garden in 2010.
Four years later, the garden is still maintained by the community, though not without some challenges along the way. The community doesn’t formally own the land, so it has no water access. In the summer, stretches of garden hose line the block to bring water from a neighbor’s kitchen sink.
But residents aren’t fazed. “The block has definitely come together, even more so now we have this space we all watch over, like a baby we all share,” says Michel.
The Chicago Reporter sat down with Trout and Michel to hear how their neighbors reclaimed their block, and how the process transformed the community.
What was the block like before you started on the garden?
Michel: We have always loved it here. Even though there was a time when things were really dangerous — and there still are very real dangers here — we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else because we’re so invested here. People are just living their lives, and we have amazing neighbors. They look out for each other’s kids, tell us when our garage doors was left open, or if our car lights are on. How many other neighbors can say that?
Trout: The garden was the main part of a wider development of our block that happened over time. When I first moved here the block that sits behind ours [Springfield Avenue] was a mess for so long. The drug issues came from the blocks around ours, which had fewer families and more vacant buildings. Cars would pull up by our house, the driver would shoot a needle into his arm, and drive away. Before we even started on the garden it took at least five diligent years of putting pressure on the police to help, and the alderman, to get them to clean the place up. Now those vacant buildings are properly boarded up, and the situation is much improved.
What motivated you to tackle the vacant lot and the problems it was bringing?
Michel: We have a good block — a block I’ve been happy to live on for 11 years. We have a community that is committed to the greater good of the area. That “greater good” was what got us motivated to do something about the vacant space. We had kids playing near a space rampant with drug dealing, and we decided we weren’t going to let that happen anymore. And if we wanted a garden for our kids, we wanted it for the other kids, too. You can’t give up on a place and move on — you need to invest at least 10 years in a neighborhood before you see fruit.
Why did you choose to make it a garden?
Trout: When you come to a community like North Lawndale, you typically focus on what you see, which is garbage and dilapidated buildings. If you create a beautiful space you can change outsider perception and insider’s experience of living here. We want people to feel psychologically encouraged and uplifted by the space. It’s a visual reminder of goodness.
Have you had any setbacks since it became a garden?
Michel: Right after we created the garden, we started getting the most bizarre reports. Prostitutes were using it, homeless people were sleeping there, we found more needles and dime bags, so the garden was filled with negative activity right after we fixed it up. It felt like a spiritual battle.
Trout: We still wanted to keep the space open, so we had to make sure everyone on the block was committed to fighting the activity. We held a meeting in the garden that our alderman, Ricardo Munoz, came to. We, as a block, promised to watch over the space. That was it. We haven’t had any problems since then. You have to be committed to protecting what’s good in your community, that’s the only way to win.
How do you ensure that the space continues to help your neighborhood?
Michel: I had visited other community gardens in the past to see what was out there, and most of the time they were locked and you had to get a key from the next door library or something to open it. Our garden is open to everyone, even though it creates more of a risk, because it’s important we be intentional that we don’t give up and assume people will wreck it. If we maintain an open, accessible space, not only does it feel more accessible to all, but we are fighting this defensive protection of community spaces.
Trout: We also use the garden all year round. In the summer we have a sports program — there’s a sports court in the garden — and a gardening club. We have a community Christmas Tree and decorate it all together and drink hot chocolate. We have an Easter egg hunt and Halloween trick or treats there. We also have most of our community meetings there.
How do you get people in your neighborhood to care about the garden?
Michel: Most people here are just trying to live, to make it, so they aren’t gung-ho about spending their entire weekend pulling weeds. We sometimes outsource that — for example, every summer Northwestern University gives us some volunteers who donate 50 hours of their time doing whatever we need, maybe gardening or fixing up the fence. But we make sure the neighbors are involved in planning, and that we know what they want it to look like. Before anything gets done, we have a meeting so everyone can say what they want.
Trout: The produce in the garden is everyone’s and when we plant it’s all the families together. It’s not mine and Laura’s garden, after all.
Do you have any advice for people who are looking to take over a lot like you did?
Trout: We wouldn’t have been able to pull this off without collaboration; you run out of energy if you try to do it by yourself. A core group of people need to be solidly working together. But Alderman Munoz and the police were very cooperative with us throughout, which helped speed things up. It’s also expensive. There needs to be readily available resources, and you need to proactively seek those. For example, Home Depot donated trees and a 120-foot fence to our garden. See what people are willing to give you, because it will be expensive.