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Three Brothers Garden

Placemaking Principle: You Can't Do It Alone

By Meghan McNulty

September 2011

At first glance, the northeast corner of Belle Plaine Avenue and Pulaski Road in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood seems like little more than a small paved lot occupied by a few parked cars. Closer inspection reveals the  Three Brothers Garden, fenced-in between the parking lot and Irving Park Lutheran Church. Peek over the fence and you’ll see residents gardening rows of thriving fruits and vegetables to be donated to the Irving Park Food Pantry.

While the space it occupies may be unassuming, the garden has done remarkable things to unite and give back to the community. The story of Three Brothers Garden began in 2008, when the Irving Park Lutheran Church demolished a house that sat on the corner. Recognizing an opportunity to extend its involvement in the community, Carlson Community Services (CCS), a nonprofit that serves the Irving Park area through programs such as gardening and after-school programs, approached the church to ask if they could use the land to start a community garden. According to Liz Mills, executive director of CCS, the Irving Park community greatly lacked community gardens, and this newly opened space presented a perfect opportunity. In early 2009, CCS held a public meeting to gauge community interest in transforming the space. Attendance and interest was good, and the church granted CCS the right to use the land free of rent. In March 2009, the community broke ground on Three Brothers Garden.

From the outset, one of the goals of the garden was to provide fresh produce for people in the community, according to Mills. So far, the garden has done just that. All of the fruits and vegetables grown in the garden, including lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, green beans, jalapeños, squash and peppers are washed, weighed and donated to the Irving Park Food Pantry. The pantry is happy to receive these donations because they often lack fresh vegetables, and the people who volunteer in the garden are happy to give back to their community. Sarah Steedman, a garden volunteer, says she enjoys the work partially because she feels like she’s helping her neighbors, adding that “it’s nice to know that my gardening skills are useful.” Indeed, Steedman and her fellow gardeners’ skills are obviously improving, as the garden’s crop yield increased from 576 to 725 pounds between 2009 and 2010.

Volunteer gardeners come from all parts of the community: Some are affiliated with CCS, some with Irving Park Lutheran Church, and it’s not at all uncommon for a stranger walking by to stop, roll up his or her sleeves, and lend a hand. The gates of the garden are always open so it is easy for volunteers to water and visit the garden at any time. Volunteers tend to the garden and harvest crops every Tuesday from 5 until 7 p.m. during the summer months, a consistent schedule that helps regulars and newcomers alike to easily remember when to come and help out. Irving Park residents also can find out about the garden’s programming through CCS e-mail blasts, advertisements in neighborhood newsletters, and word of mouth.

Besides the donated food, one of the most noticeable outcomes of Three Brothers Garden has been bringing the community together. As a garden volunteer, Steedman has noticed that volunteers naturally develop relationships with one another as they work toward the same goals and share collective experiences. These shared experiences are not limited to the volunteers who harvest the garden. CCS also use the garden as a space to host cooking demonstrations, gardening classes, and book groups. The organization also hosts potluck dinners every other week to fundraise for the garden and build community among Irving Park’s diverse neighbors.

Three Brothers Garden also has had a tremendous influence on bringing several community leaders together for a common cause. While CCS provided the garden’s initial funding in 2009, without help from other donors in the community, maintaining the garden would not be possible. For instance, the garden would not exist in the first place if not for Irving Park Lutheran Church’s land donation. Children affiliated with the church beautify the garden with donated artwork. Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th Ward) has been extremely helpful in aiding CCS in its mission, according to Mills. She helped determine that the garden didn’t need any special zoning, and waived construction permit costs for the instillation of the water system, which cut costs. Ald. Laurino also helped the group secure a grant from the Marx Foundation. Other key supporters include grants from Lutheran Synod Mission Development and Garden Burger, as well as Ill. State Rep. Deb Mell (D-Chicago), and several individual donors.

The garden exemplifies Placemaking Principle 3, “You can’t do it alone.” Without the persistence of its everyday volunteers and critical commitments from several Irving Park community leaders, Three Brothers Garden would not be possible. Now that Three Brothers Garden is a bona fide success, other groups interested in starting gardens have turned to CCS for assistance. While Carlson will likely not become directly involved with all of the proposed gardens, Mills says she is more than happy to give presentations and guidance to people who ask for her help. After all, she knows that in order to inspire change in your community, you can’t do it alone.