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Green dreams drive plans for East Garfield

Chances are you remember the Dale Chihuly art glass show at the Garfield Park Conservatory.

Of course you do. It was the surprise hit of the art world’s 2001–02 season, drawing nearly 600,000 to a corner of Chicago’s West Side that many locals avoid.

Photo: Martha Brock

The Garfield Park Conservatory is the jumping-off point for a larger community development strategy.

But art exhibits come and go. And while a shimmering set of Chihuly water lilies remain to memorialize the triumph, the Conservatory, and the tired neighborhood that surrounds it, still yearn for renewal. That’s a tall order, given East Garfield Park’s 40-year ordeal of racial change and disinvestment, a skid that saw this neighborhood of stately graystones and brick walk-ups lose two-thirds of its population and housing stock.

Yet there is optimism. Why? Because an unlikely coalition of neighborhood activists, gardening buffs, philanthropists, and, yes, Chicago Park District officials, is laying plans for a green revolution on the West Side.

It’s called the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, and it may be the most unusual anchor organization in the LISC New Communities Program. The Alliance has no cadre of community organizers, no portfolio of subsidized housing, no hot lunch or childcare programs. What it does have is faith in the power of nature to bind and inspire ordinary people, and two extraordinary women who think it’s possible to transplant the Conservatory’s newfound vitality to the streets of East Garfield.

“What I like about LISC is they want action, ” said Eunita Rushing, executive director of the Alliance. “I’m about action.”

That much was obvious not long ago as she sat behind her impossibly cluttered desk in a back office of the Conservatory, speaking alternately into a cell phone and to a visitor. A faded sign on her office door read “Foreman,” which is exactly what she was doing, ordering last-minute touches for “Chapungu,” an exhibit of stone sculptures from Zimbabwe.

Rushing’s alter-ego is Lisa Roberts, the park district’s director of conservatories. Chicago Magazine named them “Chicagoans of the Year” in 2002 for their role in staging the Chihuly. Now they’d rather talk about what’s next.

Forging partnerships

“Our aim is to integrate our work at the conservatory with the work of the community,” said Roberts. “The Alliance can be the catalyst that pulls it together, but only to the extent we forge partnerships. We’re good at partnerships.”

It was a partnership that rescued the Conservatory in the mid-90s, after a combination of official neglect, vandalism and a cold winter killed off so many of its tropical plants there was talk of closing the 96-year-old landmark.

Instead, key players plotted a comeback. Mayor Richard M. Daley okayed an $8 million rehab of the Conservatory with companion improvements to Garfield Park itself, along with a new Victorian-style rapid transit station on the CTA’s adjacent Green Line. To bolster community and programmatic support, Roberts and other greens established the Alliance with a grant from the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund. What emerged was a unique public-private deal: the park district would maintain the conservatory and its world-class plant collection; the Alliance would run educational programs, community outreach and fundraising.

It worked. Attendance doubled, though it remained a fraction of that tallied by the Conservatory’s junior cousin in oh-so-safe Lincoln Park. Then came Chihuly and his 1,600 brightly colored pieces of glass.

 “We didn’t know he was a big deal the first time we showed him around,” remembers Rushing. But the Tacoma-based artist thought the Conservatory was a big deal, all the better for its location in a community that wouldn’t otherwise know his art.

Connecting with locals

And yet for all the buzz and pizzazz, the exhibit did not directly engage the majority of East Garfield residents, who struggle with some of the city’s highest rates of poverty and crime. A Chihuly reception for 100 community leaders helped, said Rushing, but a lot of bridge-building still needs doing.

Constance Clark (center, with a neighbor and her daughter) recently bought this house on Carroll Ave., a few blocks from where she grew up. She says East Garfield is on its way up.

“This isn’t the kind of neighborhood where you mail people newsletters. It’s got to be person-to-person, hands-on, word-of-mouth.”

For kids, the Alliance put together self-guided school tours, teacher trainings and a Children’s Discovery Garden. Adults come for the demonstration garden, horticulture workshops and a guided tour program that has brought out hundreds of neighborhood residents as students and volunteers. New last summer was Garfield Market, a weekend bazaar in the conservatory’s former horse stables, where vendors sell organic foods, garden supplies and artworks.

More is on the way. Mayor Daley envisions a linear “Greentown” along Lake Street, where a variety of businesses, from landscape architects to flower wholesalers, would gel into a commercial district. The city’s two year-old Midwest Center for Green Technology on Sacramento Boulevard would be its eastern anchor, the Conservatory and the Alliance would bolster the west.

Recently the city approved two more links. An enterprise that started at Garfield Market, called CityEscape Garden & Design, is buying discounted city land at 3022 W. Lake St. for a greenhouse and floral shop that will employ more than 30. Christy Webber Landscapes, a West Side firm that hires local people to plant and maintain roadway medians, has leased city land on the 2800 block of Lake Street.

Early action: jobs

The former Lucy Flower High School was renovated last year; a new "small school," the Al Raby School for Community and Environment, will open in the building this fall.

Good jobs are key, which is why the Alliance, as its first NCP “early action project,” is looking to open an employment center. Rather than start from scratch, the plan is to use LISC support to open an East Garfield branch of the successful center operated by West Garfield’s Bethel New Life, Inc. Yet another partnership is being forged with the Al Raby School for Community and Environment, a new “small school” planned for the Lucy Flower High School building across the street from the Conservatory.

What about affordable housing? East Garfield Park has no shortage of vacant lots and board-ups. But new market-rate condos and townhouses, with names like “Conservatory Pointe” and “Garfield Park Place,” are marching west from downtown, past Western Avenue, even past Kedzie, along suddenly fashionable streets such as Warren Boulevard.

With change on the doorstep, the Alliance hopes to tap into this energy, though housing would be novel work for a group that is, in some respects, as fragile as a Chihuly water lily. But Rushing and Roberts have the sparkle as well, and a knack for building partnerships that get things done.

Stand by for growing season on the West Side.

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