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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.

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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 invisibleinstitute.com, 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."

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