Placemaking Principle: Start with the Petunias
By Meghan McNulty
Prior to the summer of 2010, the empty lot on the southeast corner of Avers
Avenue and Cermak Road in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood was strewn with broken bottles and overrun with grass and weeds, and had become a haven for loiterers and drug dealers. Faced with such an eyesore, some might simply look away, but several residents of the block decided they had had enough and channeled their frustration into action: Karen Trout and Laura Michel, friends and residents of Avers Avenue, scoped nearby community gardens for inspiration, and after consulting with residents, their children, and the neighborhood children, decided that transforming the space into a community garden and meeting space would be the most beautiful, useful, and cost-efficient way to turn the lot around.
Both proponents of healthy eating, Karen and Laura believed that the garden could be an excellent educational tool to teach children about nutritional foods, particularly because the immediate area lacks grocery stores that carry fresh produce. To pay for supplies such as fencing, seeds, and lumber to construct raised beds, the women reached into their own pockets and out to nonprofit organizations. After recruiting neighbors young and old by means of word of mouth, the group set to work clearing the space of litter, painting colorful signs, and installing planters for the new garden. Because the community members were all very supportive of the idea, it was easy to get others to roll up their sleeves and pitch in. Laura explains, “It didn’t take any persuasion. It was just a matter of someone taking the initiative to get the plan in motion and to find the resources.” Families “adopted” their own individual planters and grew flowers, tomatoes, lettuce, squash, berries, corn, and herbs; one family even volunteered to water all the plants.
Almost literally, this group of neighbors ascribed to the Placemaking Principle “Start with the petunias.” By planting some flowers, the group proved to themselves and their neighbors that they could re-imagine this space. Indeed, by the end of the summer, the loiterers who had typically occupied the lot were nowhere to be found, and the neighbors had achieved their goal of beautifying the block.
Their work, however, did not end there. From the get-go, Karen and Laura envisioned the garden as an educational space for children. To achieve this goal, they partnered with two nearby nonprofits, Young Men’s Educational Network and Beyond the Ball, to start the Avers Backyard Club, an after-school sports and educational program for children living on the block. The space is used regularly by the kids in the neighborhood, and a newly-constructed track around the perimeter of the garden enables them to bike, ride scooters, and play there. The space also has served as the site for an ice cream social, a block party, and a talent show. Laura sums up the lot by describing it as “a community space, something to take pride in. It serves as a welcome to communicate that we care.”
Karen and Laura also use the garden to educate the club’s young participants about stewardship and responsibility. Children help maintain the garden by picking up trash, pulling weeds, and watering plants. Karen and Laura believe the children’s hard work and investment in the block helps them feel a sense of pride, ownership, and responsibility, not just for the garden but for their block and neighborhood as a whole.
Many other life lessons pop up along the way. For instance, soon after the garden was established and the first crop of produce planted, someone destroyed the fence, broke into the lot, and tore out most of the vegetables. Though initially disheartening, the incident “served as a good learning experience and enabled the community members to teach the kids about perseverance, about not growing weary and losing heart,” says Laura. The next day, everyone set out to re-plant the garden.
Another example of the neighbors’ can-do attitude: Tashera, a fifth grader who has been involved with maintaining the garden from day one, readily volunteers to water plants and pick weeds. When somebody thoughtlessly uprooted a few plants she had been caring for, she diligently planted new seeds. This persistence is a testament to both Tashera’s commitment to beautify her block and the garden’s ability to serve as a unifying force in the neighborhood.
The neighbors' collective dedication is evident in the handmade signs that decorate the garden. Back when the neighbors had just begun to work on the garden, Tashera and a few of her friends painted an eye-catching sign that reads, "Be the change you want to see in the world." Besides serving as a motto for those who maintain the space, this message proclaims to anyone passing by that the neighbors on Avers care about their block and the people living there.