When 23-year-old Darmika Ford looks out her home window, she imagines a community garden brimming with flowers, produce and community cooperation, but what she actually sees is nothing like that vision. Instead, she sees a vacant lot. Ford estimates there are at least 40 such lots in her West Garfield Park neighborhood, but her community is not alone; the City of Chicago website lists over 13,000 city-owned vacant land properties for sale. Ford has created sketches of how some of these places could be transformed into community gardens.
A graduate of Illinois State University, Ford was born and raised in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood and lives there today. She works for an organization called Public Allies, an apprenticeship program that sends young adults to work as community service leaders at non profit institutions. Public Allies placed Ford at the Gary Comer Youth Center, which is well known for its striking community rooftop garden. That garden sets a high standard that Ford admires and hopes to see repeated with Chicago’s vacant lots.
I would like the new mayor to address the excessive vacancies in overlooked communities in the City of Chicago.This issue has an effect on what comes into this community and what goes out of it. If the lots are not being kept, it makes it appear as if the community is not being kept. I believe that turning these vacant lots over to the communities would increase community pride and cooperation, and you would see more positives because things are getting done.
For example, one day I was in a car, and we were riding past Madison and Pulaski. I saw residents creating their own Christmas tree inside a vacant lot with little decorations. It was so cute! They had a table with bags and it looked like they had hot chocolate. And that just represents the people that live here, because it’s some great people that live here. And I said: “See? We make small use of what we got.”
Residents could use these vacant lots as outlets for things like neighborhood artwork, murals, decorative colorful benches, and outdoor sculptures. These types of activities would be valuable in uplifting neighborhoods’ cultural existence and increasing the growth and service of these neighborhoods.
Residents could use these lots for creating community-driven gardens that plant seeds of community pride and demonstrate what each of these communities represents.
I’ve been doing community gardening since 2009, when I finished college. And what I remember about that experience is that it taught the residents responsibility and accountability. I saw a change in their attitude towards working together.
I believe that communities as a whole will change. A lot of people will take more initiative in trying to work together to keep their neighborhoods clean and healthy. Community gardens don’t always have to be a place for producing food. They could just be community beautification spaces, where people can go to read and relax and not have to go outside their community. Everyone that was employed at the community gardens I have worked at were from that particular community. There are people in these areas that love their communities and are willing to improve it.
Dear Chicago is a project of WBEZ’s Partnership Program. Darmika Ford was nominated for the series by Chicago Architecture Foundation.