A group of volunteers met one Saturday morning at the corner of Englewood (just north of 63rd) and South Normal . A few gathered quietly on the empty lot, next to the outdoor tables and tent with farmer’s market food, some coolers, t-shirts, chips and stuff. Neighbors stopped by to ask if Mr. Dip had any of his corned beef sandwiches. Sure enough, nestled in the blue cooler were the neighborhood favorites. They wouldn’t be there all day.
A few introductions among the early volunteers, and soon Ellen showed up, in her little blue car jam packed full of garden equipment, rakes and shovels and hoes, and even a wheel barrow tucked up inside the back of the hatchback. Under the wheel barrow was a neatly stacked pile of 5-gallon buckets for hauling and gathering, and even to be used by the gentleman from the building across the street who asked if he could take some wood chips from the lot to use in his front yard. To help the garden there, too. “Of course,” said Ellen, “take what you need.”
What a remarkable thing. The wood chips had been there in three huge piles on an empty lot for who knows how many days and the neighbor waited until somebody showed up to ask if he could take some wood chips for himself. Englewood.
Assignments were made. Little groups formed. I was shown by John how the wooden wagon worked, the best process for hauling the wood chips. First you tip up the cart and load it with the pitch forks. Pitch forks are better than shovels, John explained, as the tines dig into the pile better. Fill the up-tilted wagon as much as possible, tip it down, and then top it off before hauling to your destination. Dumping worked better if you removed the wagon gate first before tipping up. Two latches and a spring piston held it in place, which would generally fall off if you tried to leave the gate in and dump the cart. After a few times I got the hang of it, and ran the wagon throughout the day.
The empty lot on the corner had been given over to use by the City. Recently, the Rowen Trees Garden Society was able to get a “Farmer’s Market” designation for Mr. Dip’s stand on the corner. Dip grows the food in his side yard, and hauls it over to his farmer’s market stand – just three houses away. How’s that for carbon foot print?
The group work started. Some were weed pullers. Some wood chip shovelers. Some spreaders. Some haulers. It takes time to spread a city lot full of wood chips. Being laid down this year to start their decomposition and preparation of the soil for planting next year. A new lot to grow food, and feed the neighborhood.
Mid-morning, we all took a break. Some solo volunteers came through the Chicago Cares network, and a large group from Exelon. I’ve noticed that Exelon volunteers have been out in force at several volunteer events attended. During the break, John gave a little introduction to the neighborhood. He told amazing stories about how the neighborhood started with the boom that was the Chicago Exposition, just a little ways to the west. His description of why the houses in the neighborhood were built so large was captivating. Back in the late 1800s, homes here were built large as the husband’s life expectancy was only forty or fifty years. With husband gone, the widows would need a means to keep themselves solvent, and the homes were built large enough so there would be extra rooms “To Let.” John explained it didn’t become a border house neighborhood later on – it was built as a community to take in their borders from the beginning.
We also had an interesting discussion of the remediation of the land of its leads and toxins. The City had taken soil samples, but the results have not been revealed. It has been learned, however, that the military has developed a marvelous remediation process involving mushrooms. It seems that the fungi absorb lead and toxins from the soil and by using a centrifuge the toxins can be spun out of harvested mushrooms and disposed of properly, while the drained mushrooms are burned. At least, that’s how I understood it to be.
With the break over, we went back to our own sections of the lot and started again. This time, some were moved to the garden lot down the block, with an old gazebo – what a great place for an evening concert. I began moving wood chips from the lot to in front of the fence at the gazebo.
Evident in the lot was a community lifestyle. Small plastic bottles of sugared colored water, chip wrappers, bottles in bags, a 1” plastic baggie, a Styrofoam plate, you know…trash.
Englewood. Huge homes. Neighbors and gardens. Kids on the street. Street guys with mowers, looking to make a buck. Saturday morning hangover. Like any other block in Chicago.
We got an amazing amount of work done, in a short period of time. As my back reminded me for several days later. But what a reward awaited us. Mr. Dip and his wife had prepared a lunch. BBQ ribs, spaghetti, deviled eggs, baked beans, chips, bottles of sugared colored water; I went back for seconds… rather quickly, I admit. The pastrami sandwiches were there, too, and we were encouraged to take some home… which I did, I admit. Along with two peaches.
Mr. Dip’s backyard patio aligns next to a beautiful, full, peach tree. Many commented on not seeing a peach tree larger in Chicago.
I spoke to John briefly on my way out, just to ask if he could send me a couple photos he took – the one time I didn’t travel with my camera. I gave him my card. I later learned from an e-mail that it was Rev. John Ellis, and we have started an interesting conversation regarding food distribution with the Amish and Mennonites. But that’s for another post.
I also had a chance over lunch to speak with Ellen Newcomer, who sits on the board of Openlands, and was our spirited team leader. I’m looking forward to another weekend Saturday with Ellen on the garden lot in Englewood – I hear the food is going to be even better!
Englewood, garden, volunteer