Urban Gardening in Chicago: New Roots for an Old Community

Maia Welbel June 27, 2015

A Cooperation Operation volunteer, showing up to work on the first harvest day of the season, peers through tomato vines.

The neigh­bor­hood of Pull­man, in south­east Chica­go, was estab­lished in the 1880s by the busi­ness tycoon for whom it is named, George Pull­man of Pull­man Palace Car Co. The town was orig­i­nal­ly built to accom­mo­date his employ­ees, who enjoyed a myr­i­ad of res­i­den­tial ben­e­fits. Each home in Pull­man had gas and water pro­vid­ed, and was sur­round­ed by spa­cious, grassy yards. The price of garbage pick­up and home main­te­nance was includ­ed in the rent. In 1896, Pull­man was vot­ed the world’s most per­fect town at the Prague Inter­na­tion­al Hygien­ic and Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Exposition. 

Pullman’s emi­nence has dwin­dled over the years and its lush lawns have yield­ed to indus­tri­al devel­op­ment, but the Pull­man His­toric Dis­trict — des­ig­nat­ed as a Nation­al Mon­u­ment by Pres­i­dent Oba­ma in Feb­ru­ary — is a neigh­bor­hood brim­ming with new per­son­al­i­ty. In 2013, Liz Ner­at, an activist who plays punk-rock gui­tar when not exer­cis­ing her green thumb, helped devel­op The Coop­er­a­tion Oper­a­tion (or CoopOp), an urban gar­den project that aims to pro­vide healthy, organ­ic pro­duce to the res­i­dents of Pull­man, a rec­og­nized food desert.

Ini­tial­ly there were about 17 of us who came togeth­er,” says Ner­at. A lot of us were artists or musi­cians with an inter­est in social jus­tice.” The group rec­og­nized a very strong need” for healthy, organ­ic food options in the Pull­man neighborhood.

A Shar­ing Economy

Gen­er­al­ly, finan­cial sup­port for projects like this is more read­i­ly avail­able to north side neigh­bor­hoods than to south and west side neigh­bor­hoods, where there is greater food scarci­ty. But the CoopOp — offi­cial­ly a 501(c)(3) as of this spring — was able to get off the ground quick­ly thanks to a suc­cess­ful Kick­starter cam­paign. In 2013 they sur­passed their fundrais­ing goal of $10,000 in a mere 25 days. Since then, the project has expand­ed con­sid­er­ably. The gar­den now boasts more than 30 raised beds, a green­house with its own 100-watt solar pan­el and a sev­en-foot, vine cov­ered dome made out of bicy­cle wheels.

We had a real­ly good expe­ri­ence with Kick­starter,” says Ner­at. The cam­paign gar­nered a few hefty dona­tions from espe­cial­ly gen­er­ous donors, but most of the mon­ey came from the accu­mu­la­tion of many small con­tri­bu­tions. It was nice to know that we had such a large net­work to sup­port our project.”

The CoopOp is locat­ed on the cor­ner of 114th Street and Lan­g­ley Avenue. The 2.5‑acre plot was once a Sher­win and Williams pro­cess­ing plant, and the dump­ing grounds for a dead­ly chem­i­cal cock­tail of heavy met­als and oth­er byprod­ucts of indus­tri­al-scale paint pro­duc­tion. Though it was reme­di­at­ed by the EPA in 2003, the prop­er­ty remained closed until Ner­at and her col­leagues took ini­tia­tive to reclaim it ten years lat­er. They cul­ti­vat­ed mush­rooms to break down the con­t­a­m­i­nants in the soil and built raised gar­den beds out of dis­card­ed materials.

Thanks to Ner­at and the oth­er founders of the CoopOp, the neigh­bor­hood has a promis­ing green future. Method, a sus­tain­able clean­ing prod­ucts com­pa­ny, announced in 2014 that it plans to cul­ti­vate a 75,000 square-foot gar­den on the roof of its LEED Plat­inum cer­ti­fied man­u­fac­tur­ing plant in Pull­man. The local Wal-Mart has a green-roof as well. Grow­ing sus­tain­abil­i­ty efforts and an increased tourism appeal thanks to its new Nation­al Mon­u­ment sta­tus have brought new life to the neigh­bor­hood. Ner­at describes Pull­man as a real melt­ing pot.”

It’s chang­ing a ton,” she says, we don’t real­ly know where it’s going to go.”

Cul­ti­vat­ing a Non-pro­pri­etary Philosophy

The CoopOp has an uncon­ven­tion­al busi­ness mod­el. Instead of charg­ing set prices, the orga­ni­za­tion pro­vides Pull­man res­i­dents with fresh fruits and veg­eta­bles in exchange for hours worked in the gar­den, mate­r­i­al goods such as nails or gar­den­ing gloves, or a mon­e­tary dona­tion of any amount. In a neigh­bor­hood where 20 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion lives below the pover­ty lev­el and there are no gro­cery stores to speak of, this ser­vice can be invalu­able for Pull­man fam­i­lies. We nev­er turn any­body away,” says Nerat.

The inten­tion is to cre­ate a tru­ly egal­i­tar­i­an space where com­mu­ni­ty val­ues take prece­dent over pri­vate own­er­ship. Such a phi­los­o­phy can be hard to con­vey to an audi­ence accus­tomed to a con­sumerist nar­ra­tive. Ner­at says that it has been a con­tin­u­al chal­lenge explain­ing to com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers that this is as much yours as it is ours.”

The CoopOp has grown more than seedlings on its lit­tle plot of earth. It is pro­vid­ing healthy, sus­tain­ably raised food, as well as a shared gath­er­ing place, to a com­mu­ni­ty that pre­vi­ous­ly lacked any such options. 

As a com­mu­nal space, the CoopOp gath­ers friends and neigh­bors from the het­ero­ge­neous com­mu­ni­ty of Pull­man. It’s real­ly beau­ti­ful to see peo­ple from all these dif­fer­ent back­grounds come and work togeth­er,” says Ner­at, Our biggest suc­cess is how we’ve been able to help cre­ate a pos­i­tive space in our community.”

Maia Wel­bel is an intern at Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times. She is a ris­ing junior at Pomona Col­lege where she stud­ies envi­ron­men­tal analy­sis and dance. She is also a con­trib­u­tor to The Stu­dent Life.
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