Though he lived a total of only nine months in Chicago--Lincoln Park, after college--and recently moved back to his parents' house in Mokena, Brandon Wilson and his volunteer group First Motion drive into the city every other week to clean up vacant lots. The group's Saturday morning "guerrilla projects" are picked by Wilson, who says, "I may not know how to keep unwed mothers from having tons of children or solve welfare reform, but I do know how to pick up trash and plant flowers."
When a handful of First Motion volunteers gathered one April morning to clean up a stretch of Chicago River shoreline near Elston and Webster, the stench coming from the Waste Management sorting facility across the street and the rotting garbage in the greenish water below were impossible to ignore. Members wore hip boots and used ropes, pulleys, and buckets to remove used condoms, scraps of carpeting, shopping bags, lumber, bottles, cans, and dead fish and birds. One volunteer who was in the water four hours straight called it the most disgusting thing she'd ever done. She also said it was the most satisfying.
"When something looks bad enough to make a project out of it, it's usually worse than it looks and ends up taking longer than we thought," says Wilson. Earlier that month, the group collected 43 bags of garbage, including several used syringes, during a morning cleanup at an empty lot on North Avenue near Magnolia.
"That site was perfect because it combined every element," says Wilson. "It was next to the Chicago River and on a major road. It's near a bus stop and it's also along a hooker strip. When I calculate where to clean up, I try to determine how many people will benefit from it."
A month after the cleanup, though, Wilson drove by and noticed the lot was again strewn with garbage. His group returned the following Saturday and cleaned it up, pulled weeds, turned over the soil, and planted more than 200 mums, geraniums, moss roots, and petunias. They used rocks to form a border along the garden.
"A dirt field doesn't seem to inspire anybody, so we thought why don't we spruce it up," says First Motion member Scott Robowski. "That's the motivation behind it. There are little spots of barren land in the city, and nobody thinks anything of tossing their garbage there."
Robowski met Wilson at Illinois Wesleyan University. Robowski, an education major and artist from Peoria, now teaches chemistry at West Aurora High School. Wilson, who works in an office downtown, had obtained nonprofit status for First Motion as part of an independent study project during his senior year. The two graduated in the spring of 1996 and did their first pilot project last fall.
Wilson says he wants to expand the volunteer base beyond the five to ten regulars who currently show up and hopes to one day hire people from within the various communities to oversee cleanups. In the meantime, the group recently purchased a mini school bus that's in need of a mechanic. Wilson says he hopes to have three crews working each weekend by the end of the summer.
"So far we're a pretty white group," he admits. "Part of the problem is we don't have contacts in the housing projects, and we don't have enough knowledge or expertise to be waltzing into a place like Cabrini-Green and cleaning it up. You don't want to be a martyr for a cause that's this young--you don't want to waltz into an area and say 'We're your cleanup saviors' and get shot."
First Motion will remove trash and plant seeds at a handful of abandoned lots from 8 to noon on Saturday. They'll assemble in the parking lot behind Oscar Mayer Elementary School at 2250 N. Clifton. Call 630-553-9660 to volunteer. --Cara Jepsen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Brandon Wilson photo by Nathan Mandell.