Audio slideshow: A new garden for Altgeld | WBEZ
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Audio slideshow: A new garden for Altgeld

Altgeld Gardens is an unlikely place to put a farm. It’s a public housing development 130 blocks south of downtown Chicago. The community’s also surrounded by landfills, an expressway, a sewage treatment plant and the polluted Little Calumet River.

This is the place where a community organizer named Barack Obama got his start. Reporter Linda Paul and photographer Richard Cahan first started visiting Altgeld on the morning after President Obama was elected.

At his old stomping grounds, they’ve found optimism, toughness and people eager to share their lives and neighborhood.

They’ve been going back each year since the election. This year Altgeld proved to possess both the problem of and some steps toward solving the food access issues.

Sound of train whistle and early traffic.

Well before sun-up, occasional headlights pierce the dark. People are driving to work. Others are huddled at bus stops.

On this day.. as we've done in previous years.. we just begin strolling… talking with any early risers who have the time and patience for us …Our first 'taker' this morning is JD Payton. He's 57 years old and has lived in the Gardens since he was 12.

PAYTON: I'm a longshoreman. I load barges and ships that come in. Right now we're unloading products on BP. Windmills comin' in. Refinery equipment.  And sometimes it's very difficult.   

Payton is waiting on his ride to the Port of Indiana, since he has no car.  He tells us there's a real appeal to the Gardens, the nature trails in Baubien woods, the fishing in the river.  He's appreciated these things from the time he was a boy. But one thing he really doesn't like about this place?  In a community of over 3-thousand people, there's nowhere to buy fresh food. Not a carton of eggs, not a shred of lettuce.

PAYTON:   We haven't had a grocery store for 6, 7 years.. That's hard to believe in a community this size. We don't have a grocery store.    

PAUL:    How do people EAT ?

PAYTON:          Uh, there's a Rosebud Farm about half a mile up that way and if you can't walk up there, or you don't have an ability to get on a bus to go to the store - that's it. And that's bad, cuz my mother can't even get milk & cereal. They got a liquor store, though. ( rueful laugh )

PAUL:  So let me get that right.  Within Altgeld Gardens there's a liquor store, but there is no grocery store.PAYTON:    Correct. And it has been that way for years now. To our amazement.  Because when it first went out, we were sure within a couple of months or two somebody would be in there. That's been like 7 years ago..In fact, Altgeld Garden Liquor is the only store in this entire development, and the only foodstuff it sells is candy and chips.

But a couple of blocks away, towards the eastern edge of the development, we stumble upon something new in the Gardens. A kind of counterpoint. It's a long, Quonset hut-shaped structure, encased in heavy white plastic.

PAUL:  Good morning.

WOMAN: Good morning.

PAUL: We were just walking with  some kids. They were showing us their military academy and - what is this ?

WOMAN:  ( laughs ) Our farm site.

PAUL:  Your farm site?

WOMAN:  Right. Just a minute…  DEEERRIIOONNN!!  Derrion !

Rich and I are escorted to an unassuming 25 year old, Derrion Crawford, the manager at this site.  PAUL:        Where are we ?  What is this?

CRAWFORD:       Uh, this is an urban farm, developed by the residents of Altgeld.Crawford is with Growing Power, a not-for-profit out of Milwaukee. They aim to help poor communities become self-sufficient by growing organic food. Since July he's been working with about 150  people here at Altgeld -  some who've never held jobs before. He shows them how to build raised  planting beds with capping clay, so contaminants from this toxic ground can't leach into their organic crops. The residents make their own rich soil through composting and--  a new concept for me  -- vermiculture.

CRAWFORD:       Okay, vermiculture is composting, but with worms.  So we raise the worms, red wigglers.


PAUL:                    You're raising red wigglers?

CRAWFORD:        Yeeeppp .  

Workers are paid ten dollars an hour, thirty to forty hours per week.  With the cold weather setting in and some attrition, they're down now to a lean crew of 40.

In their jeans, shiny ski jackets, visors and cotton hoodies, these are farmers with a layered urban look.

Even now, on the cusp of winter, this crew is able to grow plenty of  vegetables under a semi-permeable landscape fabric. They can water their crops, without exposing them to the cold.

CRAWFORD:        Okay, so under there we got some lettuce, some spinach, lots of different type of mustard greens, mizuna, red mizuna… purple mustards. Inside of the hoop house we have some carrots growing and some arugula.

The hoop house, the building we spotted from the road, is a greenhouse, heated by the sun, that extends the growing season.  Several of the ladies here today --  helped put it up.

LADY 1: We put the hoop house together.     

LADY 2: Oh yeah, we all put it up together.LADY 3: We put up plastic, new posts. Do the doors. We all pitched in and helped.

LADY 2: I think lotta things that could be put together with just poles and screws and nails and-  basic things that you would never think that you could use to build a hoop house

LADY 1: Working with your hands. That's it.

LADY 2: Just like we built the compost bins over there. You-all haven't been over there ?

I ask these workers what they've learned since they started this farm job:

LADY 3: It was new to us.

LADY 2: We learned how to fence.  We learned how to plant crops. We learned how to do compost bins, make compost. We learned a lotta measurements..


CAHAN: And is this fun?

LADY 1: Yes.

CAHAN: And is it hard?

LADY 1: No.   

MAN: It's lookin' good. It's lookin' good.

Martin Tate, one of the workers here, says at first, it was hard to get people enthused about this farm.

TATE: They was, you know, a little hostile at first. But now, you know,  they fitting in like they supposed to, because they see something. At first, you know, it was just vacant. They didn't see anything..  And so, you know, it's kinda hard to try to tell a person, hey! this is gonna be beautiful. They don't look at that part, ( laughs ), so FADE IT UNDER

As the farm took on a physical presence, he says, there was a change.

TATE: They could visualize it, they can see it, they can feel it. And so now, it's a great thing.

PAUL: A little pride of ownership

TATE: Oh yeah.   

The farm at Altgeld Gardens was started earlier this year by the Chicago Housing Authority, when it set the land aside and put in water and electrical lines. But the project was jump-started when it hooked up with Put Illinois To Work, a state program that has hired about 26- thousand people state-wide since last spring.

80% of its money came from President Obama's federal stimulus program, but that ran out on September 30.  Democrats in Washington tried to extend the funding, but Republicans blocked it.

So, in a controversial move -- given all of Illinois' unpaid bills -- Governor Quinn kept the program alive with a $75 million infusion of state funding. And that money runs out November 30, about a week from now. 

Nobody knows whether the state, or the U.S. Congress, will provide any more money, but the CHA says it's committed to keeping about ten workers on throughout the winter, even if it has to pay the salaries itself.

ALFRED: Everybody listen !  I need everybody's attention!

After working several hours out in the cold, some of these farmers retire to an empty CHA unit that's being used for a culinary arts class.

ALFRED:       This is a Vitamix machine. It's about a four to five hundred dollar machine. ( FADE IT UNDER)

Camilla Alfred, one of the instructors with Growing Power, is trying to convince these workers to look at food differently.

ALFRED:        Of course you know I brought our own water. So you not going to fill it up all the way. At least half way to get it started.

And what's on the lesson board for today? Smoothies.

Sound of Vitamix mixing 

ALFRED:  Thick as you want it. Or loose as you want it. (  FADE IT UNDER )

She wants to introduce them to green living- to eating more fruits and vegetables. But sometimes it's a hard sell:ALFRED:     You wanna take me from my fries, pork chops, polish sausages ? Yeah, I am. And I'm not tryin' to turn anyone to a vegetarian. I just want you to eat healthier. We're  basically comin' out  teaching them  how to grow their own food, you know sustainability. Dunno, cuz if you notice- I don't know if you've been around in the Garden.  There's not a grocery store out here.  We have maybe 2 clinics out here, 2 pharmacies & a liquor store - so where's the food ?  

The workers at this urban farm dearly hope that it gets a new lease on life and that their jobs are prolonged. Partly cuz they need the income. And partly for their community.

Cahan :           How do you think this'll change Altgeld?

LADY 2: It'll help us a lot. Cuz we only had that store up there. And you know, they chargin' us so much, that now we get the chance to grow our own crops and vegetables. And we can market and sell and give back to the community, that they took out from the community.

Last Monday a Chicago Public Library opened at Altgeld Gardens. A new charter high school opened in September.  A planned extension of the CTA's red line could bring the new south terminal within walking distance of most residents. Meanwhile, the remodeling program continues, with more than half of the 2000 units fully rehabbed.

But there's still no bank, no post office - and as we've heard - no place within the development to buy fresh groceries. Problems made even worse by the fact that about 60% of households have no car and - last time the Census Bureau checked - about 40% of these households have incomes below 10-thousand dollars a year.Given all that, a grocery store within Altgeld Gardens seems like a reasonable expectation.

For WBEZ, with Richard Cahan…. I'm Linda Paul

Music Button:  Orgone, "Dramatic Times", from the CD Killion Vaults, (Ubiquity)

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