Revision Street: Debbie Hillman (IV)

Revision Street: Debbie Hillman (IV)

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I moved here in ‘76, and my daughter Saya was born in ’78, in fact I moved into this building here—

Debbie and I are sitting in a café on Evanston’s Main Street, and she points out the window to her first apartment in town, over three decades ago.

Main St. Evanston (photo by lukexmartin, via Flickr)

The apartment building was my first place in Evanston. I’d grown up in Chicago, but when I was a junior we moved to Highland Park, so that’s where I graduated high school. I went to DC for college and traveled around the world, you know, lived in New York for a while, Hawaii. At that age, you try a lot of different things.

When I was 25, I moved back to Chicago. I’m a Midwestern girl, I’m a Chicago girl, but I knew I wanted to make my voice heard, and I knew I could not do it in a city the size of Chicago proper. Evanston’s kind of a laboratory to learn a lot: how to work with other people, how to work with a very diverse community. Evanston has some real economic challenges. We don’t have big shopping centers like Old Orchard, so we don’t have much of an economic base, really.

I bought a home about nine years ago. One of the saddest things about raising my daughter was that we lived in an apartment. I really felt I wanted to give her the experience I had growing up in a single-family home, where you just walk outside and you have a yard. We lived across from a park, but it wasn’t the same thing. But I couldn’t afford a house. It really wasn’t until my mother died and the inheritance was enough for me to be able to buy a house, but by then Saya was, like, 20. Now I live in a small house about four blocks from here and I do have a yard. Well, it’s quite a mess right now and I don’t have much sun. The backyard is very shady and there’s no way I’m gonna cut down a magnificent Silver Maple tree just to grow food. I don’t mind purchasing food from other people [laughs]. The first thing I did when I moved in was plant a peach tree. Every year I fight the squirrels over who’s gonna get the peaches and I manage to get a couple.

I live alone, and I have my office in my home. I’m part of a really wonderful community of other people who are working on food issues. Next year we’re trying to ask the City of Evanston to name 2011 something like, The Year of Homegrown Evanston, or something. We would do some major projects. The centerpiece is already in the works with the city: an edible garden on the grounds of the Civic Center, which is a very spacious area. A lot of open space. Some of it is park space, which we wouldn’t want to take away from anybody.

The original idea was to show how much food could be grown in X-amount of area, and then we started developing the parameters of the project. It’s evolved a lot. What we’re going to do, whether it’s on the Civic Center or even the vacant lot that you passed by on your way here—there are huge vacant lots all over Evanston because development is at a stand-still—so if we got one of those vacant lots and we divided it up into, say, 20 community garden-sized plots, we would ask groups to apply for them. What they would have to do is, grow as much food as possible very intensively in the style of their choosing. The Talking Farm would offer technical assistance. I don’t care if they sell the food to restaurants, if they sell it to a farmers market, if they give it to the soup kitchens. In fact, I hope every project is totally different, because the idea would be to engage as many people as possible to get a lot of people connected to growing food.

Then they would be required to make some sort of a report at the end of the year that they spent this much money on whatever, they put this much time in, in terms of labor, and this was the economic output. We would ask them, even if they don’t actually sell their produce, to come up with a number. Like if the farmers market is selling broccoli for two dollars a head and they’re growing broccoli, they can say, OK, We grew ten broccoli heads, that’s worth 20 dollars. It would be tied with economic development and also with our climate action plan. We would try to estimate how we positively impact Evanston’s greenhouse gas emissions for 2011, and then we can predict that if these groups go back to their churches or their block clubs and try and replicate some of what they learned, then we can expand the positive impacts.

Obviously details have to be work out.

Also—Joe Moore, the Alderman of the 49th Ward in Rogers Park, he just finished an extremely successful participatory budgeting project. I just met with his wife. I wanted her to debrief me on whether they would do anything differently, blah blah blah. Luckily I asked the right questions, because Barb said, Basically you could pick any topic and do the same thing. They chose infrastructure, so Joe had $1.2 million of infrastructure money and made a list of the kinds of projects that people could vote on, etcetera etcetera.

The idea is, we can take any pot of money that exists and we can say, We want citizens to participate in how that money gets spent. I think if we could figure out how to estimate the size of the pot of money for the school lunch program—it couldn’t be the whole thing because I’m sure they have to do certain things with the money, but there’s got to be some discretionary money—and if we could identify that discretionary money and then design a process, any community member who wants to scream or yell about the school lunch program now has an opportunity to vote. I just have to figure out how to do it, but it’s the same model. It’s people deciding where the money goes.

That’s what I’ll be doing the next year and a half, god willing [laughs].