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Curious City El Paseo garden thumb

Volunteer beekeepers check bees for mites at El Paseo Community Garden in July 2022.

Maggie Sivit

At El Paseo Community Garden, neighbors connect with nature and each other

For the past year, Curious City has been focusing on the Pilsen neighborhood on Chicago's southwest side, answering questions from and about that community.

Recently our team got a question from one of our listeners, Kayla Villegas, who asked: How do community gardens get started in Chicago? And who do they serve?

To answer Kayla’s question we spent several days at El Paseo Community Garden in East Pilsen.

 This garden, which runs the length of a city block, didn’t always look so green. Located between Cullerton and 21st streets, much of the land was once considered a brownfield with high levels of lead contamination in some areas.

Today, this piece of land is home to more than 20 vegetable beds, a prairie with native plants, a permaculture site and even a beehive.

 But the change didn't happen overnight. El Paseo Garden has been around since 2009 — right around the time when local environmental activists and residents were organizing against pollution in their community. Much of that advocacy called for the cleanup of toxic waste left by an old metal smelter. Activists also fought against a coal plant that eventually left the neighborhood years later.

Amid all that advocacy, a group of residents also wanted a small piece of land to garden — and they got it.

The small corner space kept expanding over the years with the help of Neighbor Space, a nonprofit urban land trust for community gardens. The organization helped secure the land where El Paseo is located. It also offers El Paseo fiscal management support, technical expertise and access to resources.

Creating this garden and expanding it hasn’t been easy. But as El Paseo grows, its leaders and volunteers are constantly thinking about Kayla’s second question: Who does this garden serve?

The co-directors: Paula and Antonio

Volunteers at El Paseo Community Garden say they sometimes forget they’re right in the middle of the city.

The garden spreads over more than an acre of land. It has an area for gardening beds, a firepit, an outdoor kitchen space and a curved path that winds through large trees. Right next to the garden there are two big colorful murals painted on the walls of a building that houses local businesses.

Paula and her husband Antonio Acevedo have been volunteering their time at the garden for more than 10 years.

 They took over as co-directors in 2015, when the initial founders left. Since then, they’ve been taking on project after project including two murals, solar energy in key areas of the garden, a beekeeping program and a permaculture site.

Paula is mostly in charge of the administrative work. That means going after grants and partnering with groups to make planting stations accessible to seniors with disabilities and that spaces are fully utilized. She has also helped establish programs including yoga and wellness classes.

Antonio is in charge of executing big construction projects. “I became the de-facto maintenance person here,” Antonio says. “I do most of the physical labor and I lead groups of volunteers and other garden leaders doing those projects.”

Paula and Antonio count on a crew of volunteers who help them each week. But they are constantly thinking about how to get more residents involved and taking on long-term leadership roles. And they have advice for those hoping to start a community garden.

“The biggest thing if someone wants a community garden is to organize,” Paula said. “Talk to your neighbors because at the end of the day, these spaces are for community.”

Once you have the land and the people, Antonio says you should come up with a vision.

“Make sure that that vision includes input from everybody who uses a space or wants to use a space,” Paula says. “So for us, it's the seniors, it's our collective gardeners, it's the neighbors.”

The wellness leader: Cristina

Cristina Puzio is a wellness leader at El Paseo. She works as a part-time home-care aid and volunteers some afternoons. She is 41 and has lived in Pilsen all her life.

Cristina has been involved in the garden since 2016. She often leads meditations, energy healing sessions and grief circles. She also helps coordinate a group of volunteers leading yoga, fitness and flamenco classes.

“I just want to give back to Pilsen in my own way,” she says. “I feel like there's so many people here with so many talents, right? So many different leaders in the community. But this is my way of giving back to the community.”

The beekeeper: Noah

El Paseo uses its beekeeping program to educate residents, including kids, about bees and other native pollinators.

 Noah Frazier is one of the beekeepers at El Paseo. He is 27 and moved here from Berlin, Germany several years ago. He does masonry during the day and on Sundays he is usually at El Paseo looking after the bees with other volunteers.

Over the last couple of years, he says the number of colonies in the garden grew exponentially and some of the garden bees were moved to other locations across the city including Working Bikes and City Farm.

Noah says he likes volunteering his time with the bees because it relaxes him.

“Every time you approach the beehive, you have to kind of slow down and forget about all the other things going on in your life, and then move very intentionally and kind of slowly so you don't squash any of these living beings while you're in there, as you kind of invade their home,” he says.

The senior gardener: Carlos

Carlos Nuñez can usually be found hanging out in the garden in the afternoons along with the other senior gardeners. He has been a member of the garden since 2010.

He says being in the garden reminds him of Mexico, where he is from. “All of this reminds me of when we were out there planting, the smell of different herbs, the fresh air,” Carlos says in Spanish. “That’s what you breathe here, fresh air.”

 Carlos has a disability. He had brain surgery years ago and he loses his balance sometimes as he walks. Before coming to the garden, he says, he was very depressed, and not very active. But now, when he is out in the garden, he loves playing the guitar and singing the songs that he learned from his dad back in Mexico.

Carlos has made many friends in the garden and is known for giving advice about gardening and life in general. He and his friends have gatherings and share food once in a while. He loves the arepas with cheese that his Colombian friend, Luis, makes for him.

A changing neighborhood

Paula and Antonio, along with other volunteers, have worked hard to make sure El Paseo is a welcoming space, especially for the Mexican-Americans who’ve lived in Pilsen for generations.

Paula is constantly thinking about how to get more people involved and gather their feedback. But keeping a balance can be difficult. The garden has faced vandalism including getting beehive panels stolen and random people taking vegetables and fruits outside scheduled harvesting times. They’ve also had problems with people using the garden as a restroom.

But a bigger challenge is the changing demographics.

Pilsen has traditionally been a Mexican immigrant neighborhood, but the increasing cost of housing is pushing families out. Paula and Antonio are both second generation Mexican-American. They rent and don’t want to be priced out of the neighborhood either.

 But Paula says some people are concerned that having a nice garden only makes the area more desirable in the real estate market. And some residents, she says, are under the impression that the garden is only for young white professionals.

“They're telling me, 'Yeah, my friend said it was a guero garden,' but I told them, 'No, it's not,'” Paula says. 

They have volunteers from nearby high schools, she says, most of whom are Latino. And while many people who show up for their volunteer days on Sundays are younger white professionals, Paula says most of the people involved in the sound healing program are women of color and the majority of seniors who have garden beds are Latino. Overall, she says her biggest goal when it comes to recruiting new volunteers is finding people who have a long-term commitment to the neighborhood.

“The community is very transient now,” Paula says. “And so you have a really good leader for several years until they have to move away again. It's not a sustainable model.”

Another challenge is the stigma associated with a new multi-use path expected to run through Pilsen, right through the garden. This project is called El Paseo Trail. Paula says some people fear it’s going to be similar to the 606 trail in Wicker Park and surrounding neighborhoods, which led to higher home prices. The El Paseo Trail project is currently on hold, according to a recent report from Block Club Chicago.

Despite the challenges, Paula, Antonio and the other volunteers are at the garden, making improvements and asking people to keep getting involved.

Paula is excited about a half-acre lot the garden recently acquired. It used to be the area where the Loewenthal metal smelter operated years ago.

She’s been asking residents for ideas on how to use the space. They already have some proposed plans. They also installed a temporary fence for a dog run, a nature play area and fitness equipment station.

She wants residents to know that this is their garden, their yard. “This is community, this is unique,” Paula says. “Not a sterile park that could just be in any part of the city. We want it to really identify and show the community, the culture.”

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad is Curious City’s reporter. Follow her at @AdrianaCardMag

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