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61st Street Community Garden Woodlawn

Presented by Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, its committees, and its website Writer Gary Ossewaarde

Re-born as the 62rd Dorchester Community Garde. The garden's website:
New email for 62nd-Dorchester garden:

The backstory of 61st community garden.

The last waltz

Gardeners are starting to occupy the 62nd Dorchester plot. There is said to be a waiting list. Use This takes for all three gardens.

April 23 2011, Saturday, 10 am-5 pm. 62nd Street Community Garden Volunteer Workday and Potluck. Free. The Community Garden at 62nd and Dorchester. Move soil to sunnier ocations, recover pedestian paths with new ood chips and fix damaged finces. Pergola and grill will be installed. Bring a dish for the potluck.

Jack Spicer writes bad and good news March 12, 2010

Dear 61st Street Community Gardeners --

Happy Spring to you all.

Many garden things have happened during the long winter past:

First, the bad news:

•The University will begin demolishing our garden on Monday, March 22.

Now the good news:

•New Gardens -- Three separate gardens in Woodlawn will be starting or expanding this spring. There may be as many as 200 new plots total. Not all of these plots will be available to refugees of the 61st Street Garden, but all three gardens have said they will welcome as many of our gardeners as they can accommodate. If you are interested in one of these new plots, please send an email to this address: and you will be on the waiting list for all three gardens. Please include the following information:

•that you were a 61st Street gardener last year
•email address
•cross streets nearest where you live

•The Three Gardens -- Each of these gardens is unique. They are:
•Ellis View / 63rd & Ellis -- This is a small garden with its own website:!/pages/Ellis-View-CoOperative-Garden/303753729111?ref=ts

•First Presbyterian / 65th & Woodlawn -- This two-year-old garden will do a major expansion.
contact: Benjamin Murphy @ <>

•62nd & Dorchester -- A brand new garden with lots of space.
contact: Philip Crandall @ <>

•Trellises, Tomato Baskets, Bricks, Ornaments, Etc -- The University has agreed to offer a space near the garden where gardeners can put their paraphernalia until they have a new home. I will send you an email as soon as we know the exact spot. In the meantime feel welcome to gather and bundle your belongings in the garden itself. Everything must be gone by Sunday, March 21.

•Garden Party / BBQ, Sunday, March 21, 1:00pm -- This truly will be the Last Waltz. I will invite the people from The Three Gardens so you can meet them, and I would like to offer them any of the remaining garden materials they may need for their gardens. Please bring food and drink to share, we'll have hot grills at the ready. And musicians, please bring your instruments; and dancers, your dancing shoes. Please invite your friends -- all are welcome.

Garden Money Surplus -- Ironically, for the first Spring ever we have a few thousand dollars left in our bank account. My inclination would be to lend this money to The Three Gardens to help pay for the building of their new plots. As the rents come in from their gardeners they could slowly pay us back and we could then loan the money out again for more new gardens. Gardeners and other community members could also contribute or loan money to this micro-loan fund. (If you wish to do this, send the your checque made out to: William Weaver @ 5444 S Dorchester, 60615 -- and note it as "loan fund.") I'm sure there are many other ideas as to what to do with our extra money. Please email me with your ideas and we can talk this over at the Garden Party.

Thanks and happy Spring,
-- Jack Spicer

Herald March 17, 2010- Gardeners relocating from 61st Street

Members of the 61st Street Community garden are solidifying plans to move to [a] new location as the spring construction season approaches and the University of Chicago prepares to demolish the 10-year-old garden. Gardner's are inviting the entire community to help them say goodbye to the places where they grew vegetables- and community- for so many years. "Hyde Parkers should come to teh party," said garden manager jack Spicer. "Everyone's invited." The party is this Sunday, March 21, beginning at 2 p.m.

University spokesman Steve Kloehn denied talk that a specific date had been set for uprooting of the garden. "Technically, the garden was closed in the fall," Kloehn said, adding that representatives of the Office of Civic Engagement were discussing a "window of time" with the gardeners within which any remaining items on the site should be removed. "Unfortunately, not everybody was able to get their belongings out" prior to closure, Kloehn said. ....

The efforts of the gardeners to find new locations have resulted in the identification of at east three sites: Ellis View, an existing garden at 63rd Street and Ellis Avenue; a garden at 65th Street and Woodlawn Avenue; and a new garden at 62nd Street and Dorchester Avenue. ...

Kloehn said sid the university would be on hand to offer assistance at the new locations. "It really hinges on the gardeners time table, so we stand ready to help," Kloehn said. "We don't have a particular time table ... other than to be ready when the gardeners want to make their move."

"The gardeners are really doing a great job of starting new gardens," Spicer said. "I can't believe what [the gardeners are] doing," Spicer added. "They're so organized and really working hard at this."



November 12 2009, Ald. Cochran convened a public meeting on the current garden 61st St. Garden and community gardening in general in Woodlawn. The alderman offered one or more corner a block south at 62nd and Dorchester, city-owned land, and he and the University's spokespersons (Sonya Malunda, Arnold Randall, and Rudy Nimocks) proposed a garden-developing coalition that brings communities together. Over 150 attended. Cochran also said he will create committees to discuss the future of the 61st Garden and more gardens. The University also offered to kick in new topsoil, but refused demands for negotiations or neutral expert review, saying the decision will not be changed. Cochran pointed out that there are 600 plots of city-owned land available for gardens in the ward (which includes much of Washington Park and also has interested coalitions), and if on land controlled by the ward, gardens could have a stable future. Note that neighbors of 62nd Dorchester indicated they are not inviting someone else's garden to locate by their homes.

From Jack Spicer November 16, 2009

Dear Community Gardeners and Friends --

I would like to thank all of you who came to last Thursday night's community garden meeting. I was proud to be part of the articulate, passionate community we have created around the 61st Street Garden. For those of you who were not among the more than 150 people who packed the lunch room of the Carnegie School, let me assure you that your friends and neighbors represented you well.

Once again it was clearly expressed by community members to the University that the Garden has great value -- for the gardeners, the garden's neighbors, the community at large, and the University itself. And once again the University has declined to balance the full range of community interests dependent on its presence and property, and chosen instead to focus narrowly on its interest alone. Sadly, this comes from an institution seeking stature in the world of "sustainability" and "civic engagement."

Once again it was explained that the University's offer to relocate the Garden, while appreciated, entirely misunderstands both the physical and social nature of the Garden. Extracting and then transporting the existing garden soil might have symbolic value, but it would not be useful for gardening. And the complex community the Garden has slowly created during the last ten years will not survive transplanting; it will be destroyed. At the same time, the actual people who live near the site the University "offered" said that, while they support preservation of the 61st Street Garden, they have not invited the University to "occupy" the vacant corner near their homes with someone else's garden. And once again the University has miscalculated the garden's value as if it were merely a pile of dirt and treated the Woodlawn community as if it were a colony known as "South Campus."

Once again the University was asked to pause and engage with us in a genuine search for a resolution that would build a great new CTS building and sustain the Garden as an important community institution. And once again the University has said there will be no discussion, and its decision is final.
I believe this to be a bad decision with unfortunate and unnecessary consequences for all of us. The dual patterns of arrogant land clearance and institutional insularity by the University, on the one hand, and of suspicion and obstructionism by the community, on the other, date back to Urban Renewal days. I believe that by honestly negotiating the continued existence of the Garden we have a rare chance to collaboratively change those patterns. That chance is being squandered.

Alderman Cochran was asked to intervene with the University and he has promised to express the community's concerns directly to President Robert Zimmer. It is unclear whether the Alderman, or anyone else, has the power to change Mr. Zimmer's mind at this point. I expect the University to close the garden during the next few days.
The Alderman also says he plans to start a program that will try to encourage community gardens throughout his ward. Those of you who want to be on his committee, please contact Alderman Cochran directly. It has always been the practice of the 61st Street Garden to help others start gardens near where they live by using our successful garden as an example and a resource. I will continue to use my time and experience to help neighbors start autonomous new gardens.

I have been deeply proud to be a part of the beautiful and joyous community we have woven around the 61st Street Garden. It has been a pleasure I will never forget.
-- Jack Spicer

From the 61st Garden Committee December 1, 2009, Jack Spicer

After almost three weeks we still have received no word from Alderman Cochran regarding his attempt to speak with President Zimmer about establishing a dialogue with the community about preserving the garden.

I would like you to take the opportunity to view the latest edition of the "Garden Conversations":

And please be aware of two recent articles about the garden:

And please read the following letter to President Zimmer from Connie Spreen, executive director and co-founder of the Experimental Station, who is responding to this UofC news item

Dear President Zimmer,
While we love Tim Black, who is a personal friend, there is no one who does not find irony and ridiculousness in the University's pretension that this garden is anything but a symbolic gesture. Unfortunately, even the symbolism is emptied of its meaning when you laud the creation of a twenty-square foot patio garden—and treat it as worthy news—while destroying a thriving ecosystem and community space that is already realizing Tim Black's vision of collaboration, diversity, democracy, and building bridges.

The question remains unanswered as to why the University is unwilling to embrace what has been created at the 61st Street Community Garden. We know from architects and planners that there is no real need for the garden land as a staging area, as there is sufficient open space for all necessary staging. We know that the safety issue is not a real concern, as the current staging plan will put children and adults at risk on a daily basis.

I would like, once again, to point out to you that this moment has presented us all with an occasion to transform the way that the University of Chicago has traditionally dealt with the community, at least over the 23 years that I have been part of the University and the neighborhood. The adversarial relationship that I have witnessed between the University and the community is both unnecessary and undesirable for all concerned. An opportunity has opened up here for a collaborative solution to an easy problem to solve.

The University of Chicago wants and needs to embark on a meaningful sustainability program (note that the U of C has received a 'C' Green Card rating—well below every one of its peer universities). The 61st Street Community Garden is an asset to you, worth far more than any impoverished symbolic gesture, no matter how hard Bart Schultz tries to spin it as something more than that. If the University were to embrace the 61st Street Community Garden and integrate it in some form into future plans for a dynamic sustainability quadrangle that includes a world-class composting operation, a LEED rated building, and active collaboration with the Experimental Station and Carnegie Elementary School, imagine the story that you could tell your prospective students and alumni.

There is no one who is challenging the ownership of the property at 61st and Dorchester Avenue. However, we do challenge the University's lack of intellectual honesty in this process and its hard-headed unwillingness to actually account for both the costs AND THE BENEFITS to the University of retaining the garden both in terms of advancing its own sustainability program and of fostering a needed and long-awaited collaborative relationship with the community.

This is not a moment for hard-headedness and intellectual dishonesty (note that the demand for intellectual rigor should extend as well to the University's utterances directed outside of its walls). It is a moment for creative solutions and new approaches--the essence of sustainable thinking.

The University of Chicago taught me that my interlocutor is my best friend. He that challenges my thinking and ways of doing things opens up new pathways and is the source of my excellence. I ask you, President Zimmer, to see that this applies as well to the University of Chicago. We, the community, are your interlocutors. We do have something to offer you in terms of knowledge, expertise, and vision. Once again, I ask you to seize this occasion to allow the University to be better than it is, to become ever more excellent.

Best regards and Happy Thanksgiving,
Connie Spreen

From Jack Spicer, November 10, 2009

A Moment for Statesmanship

In light of the supporting role I have played in the public debate over the fate of the 61st Street community garden, I feel I must make a confession: I’m not much of a gardener. I provide occasional cheap labor for my wife, who is the real gardener in the family. I happily consume the bountiful yield of our plot. And I am enchanted by the singular urban space at 61st and Dorchester. Beyond that, I don’t claim to be a gardener.

So my immersion in the life of the garden in recent months has been an unexpected education. In the course of making a documentary about the garden, I have spoken with many gardeners. (You can taste this work-in-progress at At the same time, I have had a number of extended communications with various University of Chicago administrators. These have not been formal negotiations; they, too, have been conversations.

Both sets of conversations have been instructive. They have deepened my understanding of the value of the garden; and they have disclosed some of the University’s underlying concerns. I have emerged convinced that a mutually beneficial resolution is within reach.

By calling a community meeting—Thursday at 6:00 at the Carnegie School (1414 E. 61st Place)—Alderman Willie Cochran has taken the lead in creating a forum and a process for achieving that outcome.

What might such a resolution look like? Assuming, as we have every reason to assume, that there are alternatives to staging the construction of the Chicago Theological Seminary building that would not destroy the garden, what conditions might make one of these alternatives acceptable to the U of C?

Problem: the University is concerned that if the garden is allowed to remain until there is a plan to build on the site, the gardeners will become ever more entrenched and resistant.
Solution: negotiate a formal agreement stipulating how the relationship between the gardeners and the U of C will be terminated when the time comes to build on the site.

Problem: the University is concerned that "the garden" is an eclectic mix of independent, individual agents. How can the U of C achieve a meaningful, enforceable agreement with "the garden"?
Solution: constitute the gardeners into a more formal structure and tie that structure to the Experimental Station—an incorporated entity with which the University can enter into an enforceable agreement.

Problem: the University is concerned that if the garden is allowed to remain during construction, it may be confronted with claims by gardeners that the construction process adversely affected their plots or caused them health problems.
Solution: have gardeners sign waivers drafted in collaboration with U of C lawyers.

Problem: alternative approaches may cost more.
Solution: disclose what the cost differential is and explore accommodations on the part of the gardeners—e.g., reconfiguring the garden or mothballing part of it during construction—that might reduce costs. Assess persisting costs against the benefits to be derived from preserving the garden until the time comes to build on the site.

These ingredients-in-search-of-a-recipe could provide the basis for a resolution that would, in turn, lay the foundation for a robust community gardening initiative in Woodlawn. The University has offered to "relocate" the garden. Gardeners have countered that the essence of the garden cannot be relocated. But all agree it’s desirable to create more gardens in Woodlawn. And Alderman Cochran has taken a leadership role in advancing that vision.

Were the garden preserved for the time being, it would provide a base of operations for such an initiative, offering technical support and capacity to newly established gardens. Such an approach would allow for the necessary outreach and relationship-building prior to establishing sites, so as not to impose our agenda on our neighbors.
The controversy over the fate of the 61st Street community garden, now entering its eighth month, has been, on all sides, civil, thoughtful, and sustained. It has generated rather than blighted possibilities. Realization of those possibilities now demands statesmanship on all sides. The moment is at hand.

Jamie Kalven


Dear Community Gardeners --

We are sad to have to tell you that the University of Chicago has informed us they will not change their plans to demolish the garden, nor delay the demolition date, nor continue any further discussions. The stated reason is that the garden space is essential to the construction of the new Chicago Theological Seminary building at the southeast corner of 60th and Dorchester. They have said they intend to begin the demolition shortly after Halloween.
We had hoped to convince the University that the value of the garden outweighed the practical construction convenience. We argued that there are reasonable construction alternatives more gentle than demolition. In the end we were unable to persuade the University. The final decision was made at the highest administrative level.

From Jack Spicer, end of October 2009

Dear Community Gardeners and Friends --

Although concern for the future of the community garden widens and skepticism regarding the "necessity" for demolishing the garden deepens, the University continues to be unwilling to revisit its calculations.

If there had been an open, inclusive conversation from the beginning about the CTS building project, all the legitimate issues that have come up (safety, cost, ownership, etc.) could have been balanced and resolved. The result would have been a great new CTS building near a valuable community garden in a socially rich part of our common neighborhood. But the garden can still be saved. If the University will stop throwing up legitimate issues as roadblocks and start talking with the rest of us, we can we can resolve our common issues quickly. It would have been easier and cheaper if we'd started talking at the beginning instead of at the end, but the garden can still be saved. The issues can be resolved in a month's time if everyone is of good will. If there is a will, there is a way -- no will, no way.
Jamie Kalven has published an essay and short video. Please pass this around as widely as possible. There is a comment section at the end of the essay -- a forum for those who want to join the conversation. It would be great if gardeners and friends jumped in.

There was an article in Sunday's Sun-Times:,CST-NWS-uofc25.article

.. and in Tuesday's Maroon:

... and in today's Tribune:,0,4804085.story

... and on the front page of today's Hyde Park Herald:

Thanks for supporting the 61st Street Community Garden,
-- Jack Spicer

From Jack Spicer, October 13, 2009

Dear 61st Street Community Gardeners and Friends --

Most of you now know that the University of Chicago intends to demolish the community garden at 61st Street and Dorchester Avenue shortly after Halloween. Many of you have responded to the news. You have expressed sadness at the potential loss and frustration and disappointment with the University. A number of you also asked questions that I will try to answer.

But first, Jamie Kalven has interviewed many gardeners in their plots at the garden. The video of the interviews, The Garden Conversations, is now being published, a few conversations per day, at If you would like to be interviewed or have thoughts you want to share with Jamie, please contact him at <>. Please pass this site to as many people as you can. The "conversations" tell the real story about the value of the garden.

And second, in today's Tribune Dawn Trice talks with gardener Deb Hammond about how the community garden has affected her life. Here is a link to the story:,0,557747.column

And now the questions:

Is it really "essential" to use the garden for construction staging?

No, I doubt it's essential. Maybe "convenient" and it would probably save a little money, but the CTS building, a block away, could certainly be built without demolishing the garden. Contractors build skyscrapers in the Loop without even blocking the public sidewalk. Any independent professional construction manager could verify that the garden site is not essential to constructing the CTS building. We would encourage the University to submit the issue to an independent professional.

Is the Chicago Theological Seminary causing the demolition of the garden?

No, they made a verbal agreement with the UofC that no harm would come to the garden as a result of their new building being built. They were looking forward to having the garden as a neighbor for their sustainable building. The University unilaterally withdrew from that agreement. We've spoken to the new CTS dean, Alice Hunt, and found her to be honest and honorable. I think CTS has done what it can do to protect the garden from the UofC's construction project. I plan to attend the CTS groundbreaking on Thursday as a friend and (current) neighbor.

Isn't it UofC's private property, and can't they do anything they want?

The garden site certainly is their property and they have generously let us use it for the past ten years. We had hoped the contribution the garden has made to the community would be apparent, and the University would act as a good neighbor and allow the garden to live on. Good neighbors and good will are valuable things, not to be wasted. But we had also hoped they would see the garden as serving their own best interests by enriching the neighborhood where their students, staff and faculty want to live.

What's the real reason the UofC is demolishing the garden?

I don't know. I doubt it's a practical decision based solely on construction convenience. The social fallout -- unhappy gardeners, neighbors, students, and faculty; skepticism about the UofC's commitment to sustainability and to living convivially with its Woodlawn neighbors; bad press; etc. -- far outweighs the temporary convenience. It's more likely that it's a policy decision from the Office of Civic Engagement <> and from the President. But I don't know what their real reason is or what message they intend to send. It remains a mystery.

-- Jack Spicer

August 8, Saturday, there was an annual mid-summer picnic, 1:30 pm meeting/rally about the future of the garden, at the 61st St. Community Garden. Mood was to continue to apply soft pressure, although some reportedly wanted to take the UC's offer of a new garden. Others pointed to offers from others already received to ensure there is a place, but this is the best place and one that really contributes to community. Letters and editorials pointed out that this place is not necessary for staging and afterwards would just be returned to being a messy blot, like other locales on the South Campus. The Herald said that failure to resolve this matter will show the Office of Civic Engagement to be a failed reworking of the old Community Affairs.

October 3 a Sukkot tent was set up which will remain for a while. Service was held and a potluck.

October 9, Friday into 10, Saturday. Overnight at the 61st St. Garden with barbecue potluck supper at 5:30 pm and famous fables such as The Three Little Pigs and The Devel and Tom Walker will be read starting at 7:30 pm, followed by anyone's poems or stories. Bring tents and sleeping bags. Questions? Between Dorchester and Blackstone.

Letters continue to come in making a strong case for the garden's positive role. At least one says the finger should also be pointed at Chicago Theological Seminary, for whose building (groundbreaking Thursday October 15) the garden is being closed.


61st St. Community Garden, adjacent to nonprofit, cultural and teaching incubator Experimental Station (with its 61st Street Farmers' Market) has for many years served as a sustainable food and teaching garden and meeting spot for Hyde Park and Woodlawn residents, part of a food and sustainable neighborhood "precinct".

The July 29, 2009 Herald carried a story and also a letter by Sonya Malunda, U of C Assoc. VP Civic Engagement, saying that the garden will cease operation at the end of October, although if an alternative site were located the soil could be moved. Safety for construction and its staging were cited as the most important reason, but it is likely other factors were at play, including a probable strategic reluctance on the part of the University to have other entities using University property, especially on which the University might build in the future. The gardeners are grateful for the use of the land and efforts by various parties to find another place, but haven't seen one so far that would work and have longevity and especially both be next to the Experimental Station and that would draw both Hyde Park and Woodlawn residents.

The garden is on land owned by the University of Chicago, part of two-block interwoven sector. A letter was received by gardeners saying the land is needed for staging during construction of Chicago Theological Seminary (moved to) across the street, after the 2009 growing season. There has been an admired joint planning process by all the facilities and stakeholders, several committed to facilities that are green and sustainable and with outstanding architect. The garden under such planning process was not going to be disturbed. So, the new notice came as a surprise. The University says it will provide or locate a new temporary spot and move the current rich soil there. Not stated was later restoration of the current spot of 20 or more years duration and in synergy with its surroundings.

Gardeners and neighbors hope and and seek that the garden will come back to the present location through reconvening the successful collaborative planning process.

The process matters. Why does the garden and its location also? The garden is as social and physical linkage between both the University and communities and also between two distinct and often physically separated communities, one struggling but land-rich and in many ways on the road back, the other more economically and racially diverse but with little land for gardening. The garden and Experimental Station are in many ways a laboratory of inner and inter neighborhood dynamics, interaction, and transformation as well as the growing role of neighborhood green-sustaining and green gardens providing food in the food deserts. Involved also are issues of localized and broad-area integrative planning with real community engagement.

Here is what the Hyde Park Herald said on April 1, 2009 about the garden and situation.

By Sam Cholke

The University of Chicago announced this week that this will be the last year for the community garden at East 61st street and South Dorchester Avenue.

The garden will be moved to an unspecified new location to make room for construction staging during the building of the Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) at East 60th Street, according to a letter to gardeners from Sonya Malunda, associate vice president of civic engagement at the university. "To help facilitate a smooth transition, we are willing to move the top soil from the current garden to the new location," Malunda said in the letter. "The soil has benefited from years of preparation, and the relocation wil allow the gardeners to start gardening again in 2010 with little -- if any -- delay."

The 143-plot garden saddles the division between the university and the Woodlawn community tot he south, and has served as a spot for the two neighborhoods to come together, according to gardeners.

"That specific location has over time developed into a very public, rich civic space," said Jack Spicer, a steward of the garden. "It's not just dirt and tomatoes -- it's really the kind of interactions that have happened over there over time between a whole lot of different kinds of people."

Spicer said the garden has grown over the last few years, adding plots and for the first time has a waiting list of people who want to garden there. "it's a place where I think propel feel very safe, even though it's in an out-of-the-way part of the neighborhood."

University officials have not said what the land would be used for after construction of the seminary building is complete. Calls for comment were not returned as of Herald press time.

In an essay posted to the Web site, [,] writer Jamie Kalven says the garden is an important link to a network of food in the block that includes the 61st Street farmers Market and the Backstory Cafe. "A central theme emerging from this fertile mix focuses on food culture: the constellation of community garden, farmers market, wood-fired bread oven and cafe has established the conditions for active inquiry into the practical requirements of sustainable local food systems," Kalven says in this essay. "In this time of economic distress and uncertainty, of massive dislocations and strenuous adaptations, this ongoing investigation will yield knowledge with direct implications for public policy."

Both Kalven and Spicer pointe to the compliment the garden could serve to the sustainable and environmentally friendly plans for the seminary. "Both the University and CTS have, in somewhat different idioms, declared their commitment to 'sustainability' and 'civic engagement.' At the corner of 61st and Dorchester, these themes are not abstractions. They are daily practices with rich histories. The question of the fate of the garden is thus not only an issue of proper regard for a community asset. It bears directly on the mission of each institution," Kalven says in the essay.


Herald April 15- University confirms community garden at risk. By Sam Cholke

University of Chicago officials reiterated last week the need for the community garden at 61st street and Dorchester Avenue for staging during the construction of the Chicago Theological Seminary's new home. Bob Rosenberg, a spokesman for the university, said it was unclear how the current garden site would be used after construction of the seminary was complete. "I assume it's a development spot," Rosenberg said. "We're going to need amenities over there for the press and other things."

The fate of the garden has been in limbo since it was announced last May that the seminary would be moving from its 5737 S. University Ave. home to a new building to be constructed by the university south of the Midway Plaisance on university-owned land. "The university is not proposing to put a building on the garden," said Jamie Kalven, a gardener and writer who recently posted and essay about the site on "That, I don't think, we would have any position to protest. what we're after is a kind of exploration process."

Rosenberg said the university has looked at a variety of new sites for the garden with Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), community leaders and gardener. The university will transport the topsoil from the current garden to its new location. "There's no shortage of open land," Rosenberg said. "We need to find a place where we're not going to be moving it in five years."

Cochran said he has had only limited involvement in the process thus far. "I've been approached by representatives of the university to help them with providing a site," Cochran said. "I might have some locations that are close by as a site, but it won't be as big as the site now." Cochran said there was vacant city-owned land at 62nd Street and Dorchester Avenue that could be used by the gardeners.

"My hope is that important decisions like the university is making would bd collaborative in nature," said Jack Spicer, manager of the garden. Spicer said he hoped the university, gardeners. the farmers' market, Backstory Cafe, Carnegie Elementary School and the seminary could have a good discussion on the planning of the area"One of the things we've been looking forward to is having the garden as a centerpiece for the new seminary, said Le Anne Clausen, student at the seminary. "Anything that can be done to keep the garden there - we want to keep it there."


Jamie Kalven on broader issues

From March 2009


Blank slates make for easy planning. Awareness of ecological richness confounds the process, creating conditions for innovation. The purpose of this essay is to complicate the planning process for the new Chicago Theological Seminary building to be constructed on the south campus of the University of Chicago. When the larger urban ecology is made visible, this project becomes at once problematic and full of promise—ripe for elegant design solutions.

In May of last year, the University announced it had entered into an agreement to purchase the CTS complex at the center of its campus. It plans to use the structure to house the Milton Friedman Institute (a name that provoked intense controversy, even before the economic crisis sharpened questions about the wisdom of unregulated markets). As part of the agreement, the University will build a new facility for CTS. According to the CTS website, the seminary will move in 2012 to a new building at the southeast corner of 60th Street and Dorchester Avenue:

Overlooking the scenic Midway Plaisance, the planned facility will feature a LEED-compatible "green" design by Dirk Danker of Chicago-based Nagle Hartray architects. Plans call for a four-story, 75,000-square-foot structure capped by a green roof. A semi-circular, glass-enclosed chapel and meeting space will provide a welcoming setting for worship and gatherings. The lower level will accommodate future expansion.

Earlier this month, the University informed neighborhood residents who participate in the community garden located at the northeast corner of 61st and Dorchester that “construction staging” for the CTS building “will necessitate clearing the current garden site after the 2009 gardening season.” This information was conveyed in a letter from Sonya Malunda, Associate Vice-President for Civic Engagement, to Jack Spicer, coordinator of the community garden.

Gracious in tone, Ms. Malunda’s letter notes that it has been understood from the start that the gardeners' use of University land was provisional: “though we have been pleased to make this property available to the gardeners, we have all known this to be a short-term situation.” On behalf of the University, Ms. Malunda offers to work with the gardeners to find a new location.

No one questions the generosity of the University. Clearly, Ms. Malunda and her colleagues recognize that the community garden is something more than a vacant lot awaiting development. Yet questions persist. Are University planners properly valuing the garden as an asset (to the U of C as well as the community)? What are the costs of relocating it? What will be lost? Is use of the garden site for construction staging an operational necessity? Are there alternatives? Do these questions of competing values and operational logistics appear in a different light, if the planning unit is enlarged to include the entire block?

* * * *

Gardens are at once fundamental and elusive: fundamental in that they sustain life and are rooted in the deepest substratum of the human imagination; elusive in that they are seasonal, dormant for extended periods, and difficult to make fully visible as institutions. At 61st Street, gardeners come and go, singly and in pairs, during the day, the week, the season. Different plant species grow and ripen at various times. At any given moment, apart from peak growing season, it is difficult to bring the full reality of the garden into focus. As winter now yields to spring, the garden looks unkempt, even derelict. It takes a sustained act of imagination to comprehend how deeply cultivated it is. To see the density and intensity of attention invested in every square foot. The quiet drama of natural vitality given form by human care. The tangled roots of history, custom, and identity that make a particular place on the earth distinctive, nourishing, a means by which people know who they are.

In her letter, Ms. Malunda notes that the garden topsoil "has benefited from years of preparation" and offers to relocate it to a new site. Topsoil is an apt metaphor. The garden is, in more ways than one, a well-composted place. The question is whether the social and civic values woven into the site, qualities that have grown ever richer and more intricate over the years, can simply be scooped up and relocated.

The origins of the community garden go back to the 1980's. Over the past two decades, it has coevolved with the facility at 6100 South Blackstone now known as the Experimental Station. (Full disclosure: I played a small supporting role in this history, have a plot in the 61st Street garden, and direct a program at the Experimental Station.)

Originally a parking garage, the structure at 61st and Blackstone was acquired in the 1970's by the Resource Center, the major independent recycling operation in Chicago, which used it as a drop-off site. At that time--indeed, until recently--61st Street marked the border between worlds, a border drawn with double strokes of race and class. To the north: Hyde Park and its central institution--the University of Chicago. To the south: Woodlawn, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

In 1986, with the assent of the Resource Center, Mike Fowler, who would later establish E-Z Tree Recycling, began to garden on land immediately to the north and west of the building. To the north, he experimented with intensive cultivation of corn. To the west, he planted apple and apricot trees and established a vegetable garden. Soon he was joined by about a dozen other gardeners; many of them residents of Woodlawn.

Among the gardeners were Dan Peterman, a conceptual artist, and his wife Connie Spreen, a doctoral candidate in French literature. In 1995, Peterman and Spreen purchased the site from the Resource Center. Over time, the building and grounds evolved into a unique facility--universally referred to as "61st Street"--in which artistic and intellectual endeavors shared space with practical activities. In addition to Peterman's studio, tenants included The Baffler Magazine, a wood working shop, a bicycle coop staffed by Woodlawn youth, an organization I directed composed largely of former gang members, and an auto mechanic.

Over the years, the community garden continued to mature, as did the mix of gardeners. By the late 1990's, there were roughly twenty-five individual plots. Peterman coordinated the site. He oversaw the construction of paths for navigating between plots and established a well. To the north of the building, he and Spreen started an orchard; among the trees they planted were cherry, peach, plum, apple, Asian pear, and quince.

Then, in 1998, the garden was threatened by plans to expand the neighboring public school, the Andrew Carnegie Elementary School. The City sought the land dedicated to the garden for a new wing of the school. After extended negotiations, an agreement was reached under which Peterman and Spreen received compensation and a small parcel of land immediately south of the building in exchange for the garden.

In 1999, the University agreed to make available to the gardeners the site across the street on the northeast corner of Dorchester and 61st. Almost a decade has now passed, and the garden, under the gentle stewardship of Jack Spicer, has thrived. It has grown to 143 plots, embracing 130 households (with more on the waiting list), while maintaining its mix of gardeners. It has remained a border institution: common ground shared by residents of Woodlawn and Hyde Park.

Meanwhile, on the other side of 61st Street, an intense drama was unfolding. In 2001, fire consumed 6100 South Blackstone. All that survived were the exterior masonry walls; everything else was destroyed. The story of the fire and its aftermath, a narrative of loss and renewal, at once grim and heartening, must await another day. For the moment, suffice it to say that Peterman and Spreen summoned the resources and will to reconceive, redesign, and reconstruct the building. Borrowing a term from Frank Lloyd Wright, they renamed it the Experimental Station.

Today the facility is alive with programming and activity: the 61st Street Farmers Market, Blackstone Bicycle Works, the Invisible Institute, and Backstory Cafe. And it is the venue for a wide array of community events, ranging from wood-fired bread bakes to conferences on human rights journalism, from jazz concerts to encounters with writers.

During the hard years of grief and rebuilding, the institution of the garden grounded and sustained the community that had formed over time at "61st Street." Absent the garden, it is doubtful the Experimental Station would exist in the form it does today.

If the garden can be said to be an important civic institution, the Experimental Station can be said to resemble a garden. To list its programs and the events that take place there tells only part of the story, just as an inventory of plants does not tell you what a garden is. A deep coherence underlies the eclectic activities of the Experimental Station: an ecological vision that values robust diversity over monoculture and is animated by core principles of generosity and hospitality. It is a cultural institution that takes us back to a root meaning of "culture"--a nourishing habitat.

A central theme emerging from this fertile mix focuses on food culture: the constellation of community garden, farmers market, wood-fired bread oven, and cafe has established the conditions for active inquiry into the practical requirements of sustainable local food systems. In this time of economic distress and uncertainty, of massive dislocations and strenuous adaptations, this ongoing investigation will yield knowledge with direct implications for public policy.

At the same time, these linked initiatives have enlarged the ground for civic integration. They constitute welcoming and convivial public space where those long kept apart by fear and folklore, can become, in the deepest sense, neighbors.

* * * *
Both the University and CTS have, in somewhat different idioms, declared their commitments to "sustainability" and "civic engagement." At the corner of 61st and Dorchester, these themes are not abstractions. They are daily practices with rich histories. The question of the fate of the garden is thus not only an issue of proper regard for a community asset. It bears directly on the mission of each institution.

Consider the larger geography in which the community garden and the Experimental Station are embedded and to which the new CTS building will be added. Extending from 61st Street to 61st Place, from Dorchester to Blackstone (effectively the Illinois Central tracks), it embraces the U of C Press Building, the Steam Plant, the recently-constructed "Chiller" plant, and the Carnegie School.

Although somewhat dated (it shows the now-completed Chiller under construction), this image is suggestive. It invites a design process that addresses the larger ecology into which the CTS building will be introduced rather than one narrowly focused on the individual construction project. The latter course would almost certainly yield a wasteful, avoidable, and painfully ironic outcome: construction of a new, state-of-the-art, green seminary building at the north end of the block that does injury to the life-supporting diversity and complexity that have taken hold at the south end of the block.

By contrast, if the scope of the planning process were enlarged, a range of intriguing possibilities would come alive. Such a process would build upon rather than undermine the powerful design coherence that now exists along 61st Street--the complex of elementary school, garden, farmers market, bike shop, cafe, and so on. And it would orient south toward Woodlawn as well as north toward campus, establishing a gateway that would invite neighborly movement in both directions.

Is such design elegance possible? Can the University and CTS realize this opportunity to advance their commitments to sustainability and civic engagement? I do not presume to have command of the range of factors the planners and architects must ultimately reconcile, but I believe these are the right questions. The necessary questions. And they are at hand.


Maroon coverage and views

University to transplant community garden in Woodlawn. April 10, 2009. By Ella christoph.

The University of Chicago plans to evacuate the East 61st Street Community Garden by the end of the year to begin staging for construction of the Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) nearby. The garden, loathed in a lot owned by the University, provides 143 plots for gardeners to grow and harvest their own food.

Gardeners have cultivated crops south of the Midway since the 1980s, and as the sustainability and local food movements have grown, the garden has expanded and the area has developed into a vibrant community hub.

Sonya Malunda, associate vice president of civic engagement, announced in a letter to Jack Spicer, coordinator of the garden and owner of Hyde Park Landscaping, on March 11 that the University would need the space by the end of the 2009 gardening. CTS will be built on South Dorchester Avenue between East 60th and 61st Streets, adjacent tot eh garden. "For safety and convenience, it made sense to let the construction proceed and let the community garden find a safe and comfortable long-term home," said University spokesman Bob Rosenberg, who added that the University would work with the community to help the garden find a new location. He doubted it would be a University-owned site.

However, Spicer and other community activists are unsure whether the University has fully considered possibilities that would allow the garden to remain. "It's not clear how convenient or how valuable or how essential it would be to have that particular space," Spicer said.

It has been clear that the University planned to develop south of the Midway since the garden moved to the University-owned space in 1998. Rosenberg suggested that the garden could move to a vacant lot southwest of is current location. He said that there are a number of city-owned empty lots in Woodlawn where the garden could potentially be located. The University has offered to move the topsoil, which is fertile from years of cultivation, from the current garden to the new location. "The University has long recognized the hard work and ongoing efforts by neighborhood gardeners that make the Community Garden a productive and beneficial resource," Malunda said in an email.

The Garden works in tandem with Experimental Station, a nonprofit that provides resources for cultural and community projects and houses the Backstory Cafe. The Station is across the street from the garden, and the small street between them is blocked off on Saturdays during the summer for the 61st Street Farmers Market. Spicer, Experimental Station Executive Director Connie Spreen (Ph.D. '87), and Jamie Kalven, a community activist who woks for the Invisible Institute, a Chicago-based company that supports collaborative social justice projects, hope to initiate a more extensive process with the University to consider options that could benefit all the parties.

The garden, Kalven said, could be a gateway between Hyde Park and Woodlawn. "If the scope of the planning process were enlarged, a range of intriguing possibilities would come alive. Such a process would build upon rather than undermine the powerful design coherence that now exists along 61st Street," Kalven wrote in an essay on the garden that he posted on the Invisible Institute's Web site shortly after Malunda's letter.

Gardener Jennette Spencer, who lives across the street from the garden, where she tends a double plot that she shares with a friend, she said she has met at least half the gardeners. Spencer relies on the food she harvests from the garden, including tomatoes, cucumber, chard, and bell peppers, to alleviate grocery costs. The $40 annual fee for a plot goes to wood chips, soil, and fertilizer for the gardeners to share.

the garden provides a unique opportunity for interaction between people associated with the University and Woodlawn residents, Spicer said. "I'm not going to meet Jennette in the world I live in [without the garden]" he said. The garden began in the 1980s, when Mike Fowler (A.M. '49, Ph.D. '59) began to garden at East 61st Street and Blackstone Avenue on land owned by the Resource Center, an independent recycling operation. Other Woodlawn residents joined him, including Spreen and husband Dan Peterman, who purchased the site in 1995 and went on to found and build the Experimental Station. The garden thrived until the city claimed the land in 1998 under eminent domain law in order to expand the neighboring elementary school, Andrew Carnegie, which now uses the garden as an educational resource. The garden then moved to its current University-owned site, which until then had been an empty lot.

"There are extraordinarily few spaces where people from the University and from the community interact," Kalven said in an interview with the Maroon. "Let's jut pause and assess the value of what has grown on this site over the decades." Both the gardeners and the University hope to stimulate growth on the South Side. "What we're really looking for is a process. "It's complicated and it's not necessarily adversarial."

Maroon editorial, April 10, 2009. Room for Growth

To say that the University has long had a difficult relationship with Woodlawn would be an understatement. The restrictive covenants immortalized in A Raisin in the Sun and the University's pledge not to develop south of 61st Street are just two telling examples. In recent years, however, the administration has made a genuine effort to reach out. Last month, for instance, the University offered to relocate the 143-plot community garden on East 61st Street and South Dorchester Avenue, which will be displaced by the construction of the new Chicago Theological Seminary building. This offer is indicative of the U of C's continued commitment to community relations.

Some don't see it that way. Garden coordinator and community activist Jack Spicer expressed his objection to the relocation in the Hyde Park Herald, saying of the garden, "It's more than just dirt and tomatoes." Editorializing on The Huffington Post Chicago, writer and activist Jamie Kalven claims that the relocation amounts to the University ignoring its community. "The question,"Kalven wrote, "is whether the social and civic values woven into the site, qualities that have grown ever richer and more intricate over the years, can simply be scooped up and relocated." Well, in this case, yes they can. The garden will find a new home, the gardeners will move with it, and everything will be more or less the same as before.

It's worth noting that the garden's existence at ist current location has always depended on the University's generosity. This is not a case of the U of C uprooting private property; rather, it's a necessary relocation of something on University-owned land that has always been considered temporary. The administration has even offered to cover the cost of relocating the topsoil from the garden to a new site.

Moving forward, however, administrators must go further than simply finding a new site for the garden -- a permanent location needs to e established. One of Woodlawn's greatest challenges is that it has too many open lots with no development in sight. The University should make a serious effort to arrange an alternate site as soon as possible so that the garden can carry on in 2010 with minimum interruption.

With the new dorm set to open in the next academic year, the University's relationship with Woodlawn wil enter a new stage. As it develops south campus -- and perhaps extends its reach beyond 61st Street -- the U of Cs' interest will inevitably diverge. Commercial development south of the Midway is something of a necessity, but not inevitable. A chilly relationship with the community could complicate even the best-laid plans. It is important, therefore, for the University to continue to interact with Woodlawn in an honest and genuine fashion.


Herald May 27, Gardeners begin site's last growing season. By Sam Cholke

Gardeners gathered at their plots at East 62nd [sic] Street and South Dorchester Avenue May 16 to mark the last growing season before teh space is converted to a staging area for the construction of the new seminary building. "I've had big gardens all my life," said Paul Schellinger. "It's in my blood." Schellinger said he hoped there could be some way for the garden to stay in its current spot, as he stood over his tim rows of radishes and lettuce. "This soil can't just be picked up and moved somewhere," he said.

The University of Chicago plans to move the topsoil from the 143 plots at the garden to an as-yet-unspecified new home before beginning construction on the new Chicago Theological Seminary at the corner of East 60th Street and South Dorchester Avenue. The garden, first started in teh mid-1980s, has been in its current location since the expansion of Andrew Carnegie Elementary School in 1999 when the university provided land to preserve the garden.

The seminary was enthusiastic about having the community garden as a neighbor, said Alice Hunt, president of the Seminary. "When we first started talking about our building, we were under the understanding from the University of Chicago that we would not have any impact on the community garden ... we were very concerned about it and we were happy to hear that," Hunt said. "When their project manager came on and did some work on the staging of the building, they determined ... that because of parking regulations in Woodlawn, they would have to do some staging on the community garden."

Bob Rosenberg, a spokesman for the university, clarified that staging for the construction of the building could not be done on the street because of city regulations requiring the streets remain clear. He said the university continues to work with gardeners to locate a permanent home for the garden.

"Hopefully, there should be some way to work it out," said John Stimler, campus minister at Mount Carmel High School, 6410 S. Dante Ave., who recently moved to Chicago and said he felt lucky to get a plot at the garden . "It's become a place where people hang out, more of a community gathering place." Gardeners said they would travel with the garden to whereever to new home is but the benefits of having the farmer's market and [Experimental Station complex] in such close proximity would be sorely missed.

"I think it's a shame," said Laura Shaeffer, who is starting a summer program that brings kids into the garden. "I think it's so needed in an urban environment to have a space like this. It's a shame after all these years of cultivating the land to just use it as staging there's another space."

The new seminary is still in the planning process, Hunt said. The groundbreaking will likely be in the fall, she said. The building is being designed by Nagle Hartray Architects, which deigned Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Studios, the expansion of the University of Chicago Laboratory School and other projects. Hunt said they are shooting for LEED Silver certification, a national standard for green building. Construction of the building will rely heavily on recycled and locally sourced materials, she said. teh new seminary building is scheduled to be completed in late 2011.

Letters to August 5 2009 Herald say UC missing the garden's value, should work around it

1 From Jamie Kalven, Dan Peterman, Jack Spicer, Connie Spreen

The University of Chicago has officially notified the 61st Street Community Garden that the site of our garden will be cleared on Oct. 30, 2009. They have declined to discuss any possibility of the 61st street Community Garden remaining on its present site. (See letter from the university in the July 29 Herald.)

We appreciate the U. of C.'s right to do whatever it wishes with its private property; but we feel that the garden is of great community value and that its demolition would be great loss -- not only to the gardeners and teh community but also to the university itself. Every year the garden significantly enriches the lives of the 134 families that garden there, many of whom are university faculty, students or staff. It offers something we all look for in a great urban community -- a safe, stimulating, beautiful place to be outdoors with our family and friends; a place to be productive and creative with our extra time; and a common space where we can get to know others we might never otherwise meet. These are important values not easily created by neighbors or by and institution. And they already exists on this site for the benefit of the community and the university.

We appreciate the University of Chicago's offer to relocate the 61st Street Garden to another site in Woodlawn, but this is not a simple matter. The rich soil we have created over the years is not easily sorted, sifted and reinstalled at another location. Nor is the rich social fabric we have created likely to survive a transplant undamaged. The garden provides a unique space, exactly on the border between two communities, where neighbors from Woodlawn and Hyde Park have successfully grown to know one another for more than 10 years. And the garden's current location, next to the 61st Street Farmers Market and the Experimental Station, makes it part of a rich, sustaining urban ecology.

Judging from our long waiting list for garden plots there is certainly need for more community gardens in the area, but the value provided by this particular community garden at this particular location is irreplaceable. And, of course, it is not to be presumed that another part of the Woodlawn neighborhood would gladly accept the university's discarded garden.

We appreciate the University of Chicago's need for an economical and safe construction environment for the new Chicago Theological Seminary building at 60th Street, one block away from the garden. However, we believe there is flexibility inherent in the staging and construction requirements of the project. We would like the opportunity to fully explore with the University construction team their practical needs and how they might be met in a way that spares the garden. We will continue to ask the university to engage in an open conversation about the future of the 61st Street community Garden at its present site.

For more information please go to the 61st Street community Garden website:

On Saturday, Aug. 8, at noon we will have our Mid-summer Garden Picnic. all are welcome. Please bring food and beverages to share --there will be grills for cooking. Bring all your friends and others you think would enjoy sharing our garden, as well as the Farmers Market just next door (open til 2:00 p.m.). The picnic will last through the afternoon, so come when you are able. At about 1:30 p.m. we will gather for a short community meeting to share the latest information about the future of the garden.

We thank the woodlawn/hyde Park community for all the support the 61st Street Community Garden has received over the years.


2. Stephanie Weaver, MD

It is ironic that while First Lady Michelle Obama is planting an organic garden on the White House lawn, the University of Chicago's Office of Civic Engagement is tearing one down. The university has a thriving organic community garden on its land at 61st Street and Dorchester Avenue which it plans to turn into a parking place. The community garden is a wonderful resource that has brought together gardeners from the University of Chicago's students and staff with members of the community to raise organic flowers and vegetables in a sustainable way.

The University of Chicago's Office of Civic Engagement mentioned moving the garden in last week's letter to the Herald, but there are several important reasons for the garden to stay at 61st and Dorchester. Many of the trees and perennials in this garden would die if they were moved. The garden's current location also allows collaboration with the Experimental Station across the street and the 61st Street Farmer's Market. And it's this collaboration that is bringing organic food and a spirit of community cooperation into the food desert of Woodlawn.

I would encourage the Office of Civic Engagement to fully explore with the architects and university facility management to see if there are any alternative sites that could be used for staging the construction of teh seminary building and therefore to avoid destroying this community treasure.


3. Joleen Kirschenman

I am biased. On all sides. I am a gardener at the 61st Street Community Garden site. I am an alumna from the University of Chicago. I took a salad to a potluck yesterday with food I harvested that morning. It was delicious and I took home only an empty salad bowl. I am the recipient of a huge fellowship the university. I learned a lot.

Now, there is a m ve on the part of the University of Chicago to shut down the garden, a place where I have met more people from Woodlawn than all my work as a graduate student focusing on race and poverty ever led me. At the end of the day, I found my career working for a hedge fund downtown with a corner office. During this experience, I watched the UBS building being built. Never one did I see the neighborhood disrupted. There was a time when the sidewalk on that side of the street closed. The construction company was savvy enough to be able to build a skyscraper without disrupting the neighborhood. In the 20 or so years that I've been working downtown, the most interruption I've ever experienced from numerous building projects is to have to walk across the street. Not once did I see a neighboring building being razed to build a new one.

Why is it that the University of Chicago can't do the same? Build the building or the seminary. Put their stuff next to it. Disrupt the community temporarily -- with a sidewalk closing or two. Any good construction company can do this.

More letters appeared in subsequent issues calling on the university to put values and example above convenience.


Reader March 4, 2010: Hyde Park & Kenwood Issue: Expelled From the Garden
The U. of C. wants to park bulldozers on a Woodlawn community garden, and it won't take "let's talk about this" for an answer.
By Martha Bayne

The community garden at 61st and Blackstone isn't physically a part of Hyde Park. Sitting just south of Midway Plaisance, the dividing line, it's in Woodlawn, the predominantly African-American neighborhood that stretches south to 67th Street and west to MLK Drive. But most of the gardeners live in Hyde Park, and both the garden and the oddly shaped building across Blackstone—the community and cultural center now called the Experimental Station—bear the imprint of their gray Gothic neighbor to the north. "We're both of Woodlawn and Hyde Park," says Connie Spreen, executive director of the Experimental Station. "We like to play with that boundary."

Woodlawn has been contested space for decades—ever since the U. of C. first marked the narrow strip between the Midway and 61st Street for eventual development in the 1950s, as part of its long-unspooling South Campus Plan. The bitter struggles over urban renewal and community identity continue to this day, and over the past year they've taken the form of an emotional dialogue over the fate of the ten-year-old 61st Street Community Garden. The gardeners are trying to reason with the University of Chicago as the university might have taught them—did teach some of them—to reason, but the university has remained unmoved.

In March 2009, Jack Spicer, a landscape architect and the garden's coordinator, got a letter from Sonya Malunda, associate vice president for the university's office of civic engagement. The letter was gracious, regretful even, but the news it delivered was a bomb: construction plans for a new Chicago Theological Seminary building at 60th and Dorchester required the use of the garden lot, which the university owns, as a staging area. Following the 2009 growing season, the garden's 140 plots would have to be cleared.

Since that letter arrived, Spicer, Spreen, and many of the 61st Street gardeners have been fighting a pitched battle to get the university to reconsider its plans. They don't dispute the institution's claim to the land— they've always known their tomatoes were rooted in borrowed ground—and if the university had reclaimed the lot for some higher purpose, such as a building, the gardeners say, they would be sad but could move on. But there's no compelling need to park a construction trailer on that particular lot, says Spreen—and she finds the university's stance on the matter "aggressive" and "disingenuous."Z

A dozen years ago the Board of Education used eminent domain to force the sale of a land parcel just west of Andrew Carnegie Elementary, at 1414 E. 61st Place. The land, occupied by the neighborhood's first community garden—perhaps 25 plots—was owned in part by Spreen and her husband, artist Dan Peterman, who also owned the adjacent multiuse building at 6100 S. Blackstone, which housed Peterman's studios, a bike co-op, an auto mechanic, a woodworking shop, and the offices of the Baffler magazine.

Spreen and Peterman talked to the university and worked out a handshake agreement to take over the 61st Street site, an empty lot, until the U. of C. needed it. The gardeners moved, and many more soon joined them.

In April 2001, a fire gutted 6100 S. Blackstone. Only the exterior walls were left standing. Five years of zoning negotiations followed, but the new facility, built with recycled materials and now called the Experimental Station, opened in the fall of 2006. It now houses, among other things, Backstory Cafe, the co-op Blackstone Bicycle Works, Peterman's studio, and an events space. In the winter it hosts the 61st Street Farmers Market, and about once a month Spreen fires up the wood-burning brick oven in the spacious kitchen for a day of community bread-baking.

During the long years of planning and reconstruction—years in which some of the tenants worked out of construction trailers on the lot—the garden held the community together. By last summer it was one of the largest in the city, comprising 140 ten-by-ten-foot plots, for which each gardener (or family of gardeners) paid a flat $40 per year. When the new Helmut Jahn-designed South Campus Chiller Plant was under construction a few years back the university asked the garden to move eight plots, and that was accomplished with little fuss. Other than that, says Spicer, the garden has flourished over the intervening years, fostering relationships and providing a safe urban space. Perhaps 80 percent of the gardeners are Hyde Parkers, while 20 percent live in Woodlawn, and 80 percent are white, while 20 percent are African-American. "We have a number of white Woodlawn gardeners and a number of African-American Hyde Parkers," notes Spicer. The garden is a "neighborhood" in and of itself, he says, whose demographics run counter to "a variety of stereotypes." And it's a neighborhood that, in his opinion, the University of Chicago doesn't know how to value.

Sonya Malunda's letter to Spicer expressed the school's appreciation for the garden's place in the community, along with the university's hope that a community garden could continue to be "a symbol of partnership for many years to come." To foster that continued partnership, the university offered to relocate the garden's topsoil, which Spicer estimates the gardeners have spent $50,000 to enrich over the years, to a new, yet-to-be-determined location.

Garden topsoil has been moved in bulk in the past, but it's not ideal. Kirsten Akre, who gardened with her family at 61st Street and runs the organic greenhouse at Kilbourn Park on the northwest side, explains that the pathways are marked by wood chips that would get scooped up too. "Mixing the wood chips with the soil will lead to a nitrogen depletion for several years while the wood chips are decomposed." There are also rocks and other debris to be accounted for, not to mention the possibly toxic urban soil below the topsoil, some of which inevitably would wind up in the same scoops.

But beyond such nuts and bolts lie the intangibles of place and community. "My kids chased snakes, rabbits, saw hawks and birds, enjoyed all the edible plants, climbing trees," says Akre. "It was a magical place for my family." While a good faith gesture, says writer Jamie Kalven, whose family had a plot at 61st Street, the relocation offer "is based on a misunderstanding of what is essential and valuable about a garden." The garden is a "fragile, particular set of relationships" built over time, he says. "It gives us way too much credit to think we can pick up and do it all over again."

Kalven runs an activist-journalism project called the Invisible Institute out of the Experimental Station—and he exemplifies what's uniquely Hyde Park about this particular land-use controversy. The garden community is full of people like Kalven: people trained—many at the U. of C.—to value critical inquiry, question received ideas, and honor differences of opinion.

"With other institutions [like the police department] you expect a wall and you expect to engage with them on a certain level," says Kalven. "But with the university you expect to have shared values—a respect for facts and open dialogue."

Over the past year, he says, garden advocates have taken great pains to foster that dialogue. They've consulted experts and come up with alternate staging locations. They've pointed out that routing construction traffic down 61st Street could have a disastrous effect on the businesses operating out of the Experimental Station. They've appealed to the university's own stated goals of community engagement and sustainability, arguing that the garden is a model of the sort of biological and human diversity the institution should be encouraging.

And they've framed the issue in terms of the ancient tensions between the university and its neighbors. Last November Spicer wrote a letter to the gardeners telling them that "the dual patterns of arrogant land clearance and institutional insularity by the University, on the one hand, and of suspicion and obstructionism by the community, on the other, date back to Urban Renewal days" and that a "rare chance to collaboratively change those patterns . . . is being squandered."

The drama surrounding the garden has been widely reported, with features everywhere from the Maroon to the Tribune. The gardeners themselves have done much of the reporting; at, Kalven and videographer Aaron Cahan have amassed a remarkable online archive of material that they hope to turn into a half-hour documentary.

University officials have remained polite but firm. "Some gardeners have suggested that we use the campus property at 61st and Woodlawn to accommodate the construction, machinery and equipment associated with the seminary so that the 61st Street garden could continue," states an FAQ on garden relocation provided by university spokesman Steven Kloehn. "This is not possible. We have made a commitment to our neighbors in Woodlawn who live near 61st Street that we would not use that site for future construction staging."

Construction is scheduled to start this spring, weather permitting, and Kloehn says it's "highly unlikely" that current plans for the site will change. The university is working with the Washington Park Consortium and 20th Ward alderman Willie Cochran's office to identify vacant city-owned land in Woodlawn that could be developed as gardens. The largest of those sites, at 62nd and Dorchester, could contain about 80 plots—a little more than half of the 140 at 61st Street.

Kalven, Spreen, and Spicer say the school has failed to respond seriously to the gardeners' concerns, and Kalven adds that it bodes ill for university relations with Woodlawn. To reassure residents that it did not intend to expand into the neighborhood, the U. of C. stated in a 2004 letter that it "does not own any land south of 61st Street, and it has no plans" to acquire any. But the university is growing, many of its students and faculty live south of 61st Street, and it has ongoing interests in Woodlawn, including a university-sponsored charter school. If it's perceived as unresponsive to community concerns now, argues Kalven, that "could engender a much more polarized, obstructionist, hostile community dynamic down the road."

As the land lies dormant, a thick blanket of snow precluding both planting and construction, gardeners like Kirsten Akre aren't giving up just yet. "We are holding on to hope that we will get some spring asparagus, rhubarb, and some of our currants and not have to give up our 61st Street Garden," she says. "It's silly, but I just can't understand how someone could destroy such a fabulous spot."

"We are neighbors," says Connie Spreen. "And neighbors do talk to each other about how their land gets used. As far as the university is concerned the conversation is over, but for us it's never over."