On a comfortable sunny Saturday of September 17, I had the opportunity to engage in an event organized by my dear sister Mecca Brooks and Bernard Lloyd dubbed the Southside Green Economy Tour.

The tour was sponsored by the Bronzeville Community Garden in partnership with the Bronzeville Alliance Green Team and the Field Museum through funding from the Chicago Climate Action Plan.  The event was designed to give its participants an overview of the activities taking place on the southside of Chicago towards the goal of building sustainable infrastructure and capacity, improving conservation and cultivating the use of alternative energy sources.

The tour began at the Bronzeville Community Garden where a domino game was underway on one of the local stump tables amongst a group of neighborhood residents.  Jah’kaya and I greeted a few folks there and began roaming through the remaining rows of the garden examining tomatoes, peppers and other planted items flourishing in the space.  While exploring further, I spotted a group of children from the apartment building next door preparing to fling tomatoes at one another.  I made an agreement that if they would conduct garden cleanup for the day they could take a few appropriately ripe pieces home with them.  I am not one to laud my skills at wrangling the youth though I have had some success.  On this particular day, they vacated the grounds in disinterest ensuring the survival of the small green fruit for a future harvest.

Organizers and participants on the tour began to arrive soon thereafter.  The oversized chess pieces were unlocked by a community resident whom holds a key for garden supply management and event pre-staging.  One of the first participants I met while waiting for the tour to begin was Eboni Senai whom I later learned was initiating a program in Chicago called Red Bike & Green which I hope to write upon in a future blog entry.  They had their first Chicago chapter ride out on October 15th.  The story I gathered from the pictures was that there was tremendous representation from members of the Chicago artist and activist community.

The organizers circled up all whom were present and began to lay out the case for holding the tour.  All members of the circle went around and introduced themselves while offering their own reasons for taking part in the tour that day.  We then discussed the agenda and noted that some portions of tour might be either cut short or redacted entirely as our commitment was to arrive at Plant Chicago by 2 o’clock since we would be joining the general tour which was departing through the facility at that time.

Before I move further through the tour agenda and my reflection, allow me to offer a few definitions and numbers as taken from the literature issued on the day of the tour.  Climate change refers to changing patterns of temperature, precipitation, humidity, wind, ocean circulation and other variables over long periods of time.  It is today caused by human activity such as the burning of fossil fuels including coal, petroleum and natural gas thus causing an imbalance in the carbon cycle.

Chicago’s average temperature is increasing and has risen 2.6º F since 1980.  The city is experiencing more extreme weather events including heat waves, flooding and summer days where the temperature goes above 100º.  For each of the reasons outlined above, it is imperative that we learn and employ the strategies of adaptability to a changing environment which appears at this advanced stage to be beyond abatement.  As we adapt and use the planet’s resources in a more sustainable manner, we can create the conditions that will allow the Earth to begin this process of self repair which will restore ecological equilibrium.

In addition to being the rendezvous point for the tour, the Bronzeville Community Garden was also our first stop.  The Garden was formally established on August 19, 2010 when the community celebrated its grand opening.  The three primary contributions noted of the Garden in our tour literature included: local food production, climate neutrality, and attractiveness to butterflies.  As the garden focuses on edible growth, it strengthens the resilience of the community and reduces its carbon footprint.  On the issue of climate and ecology, the native plants require neither extensive watering nor fertilization.  Butterflies might seem an odd contribution at first, but only until one considers their critical role in the process of pollination.  Therefore a network of established native gardens will open migratory corridors through urban communities for these creatures to feed upon and thereby assist us with our cultivation.

Amongst the attributes I counted as most beneficial to the Garden were its borderless presence and community investment.  Although there is always the prospect of harvest loss in an unfenced garden, one can clearly see the protection that lies between those whom come to the garden’s edge to play dominoes in marathon matches and the members of the Cain’s Barber College who come out initially for a smoke and find themselves seated for a moment in the quietude of the space.  The truth is that black people love beautiful vistas as much as any other people and when we build such things amongst ourselves and call the community to take part in the process, they  show themselves ready to secure it from disruption.

The second stretch of our journey found us exploring the urban oasis that is the Eden Place Nature Center.  The nature preserve was begun in an effort to offer children in this southside Chicago neighborhood an opportunity to engage with ecology and biodiversity without traveling miles outside of their own community.  Eden Place exhibited among its attributes a monarch butterfly habitat, a wide array of native plants and educational workshops available to the community at large.  During September when the monarch butterfly population sojourns south for Mexico in order to repopulate and winter over, they can stop and rest in an array of wildflowers growing within the boundaries of the preserve.  Children also have access to a small farm with chickens and ducks where they can examine the animals growth and produce farm fresh eggs for sell to residents and visitors.  They can explore an indigenous American settlement where they learn about the construction of the wigwam and the earliest settlements in Illinois.

This was perhaps my favorite part of the tour if only for the diversity of experiences that were available on this relatively small parcel of land.  Eden Place is an example of true land reclamation and repurposing at work within the urban landscape.  When Michael Howard initially acquired the deed for the land, it was an illegal urban industrial landfill with two hundred tons of waste which took them three years to clean up.  In addition to having created a green space for the children to explore nature, they are assisting in the repair of Earth mentioned earlier in this article.  It is possible for us to repair the damage that we have done to this Earth, but first we have to bring ourselves a hard stop on increased industrialization and resource consumption then we must begin to put something back into the Earth by way of seeds and sustainable cultivation.  Eden Place is doing that very necessary work and we should all heed their example.

As time was running short before we were due to arrive at the Plant, our tour guides decided that to bypass the Iron Street Farm.  We were advised that since we had its address on the literature, it would be beneficial for us to visit the location at a later time so that we might make ourselves aware of the full range of their offerings.  Cited in our tour notes as areas of interest included their efforts at composting and food policy initiatives.  According to the website for Iron Street, they have implemented a living compost system consisting of carbon residue, microorganisms, minerals and red wriggler worms.  This composting process integrates into their closed loop ecological approach in order to clean up soil contaminants, digest and transform food waste and produce a highly effective, rich and organic fertilizer.  As each of our individual organizations operates in a variety of legislative and civic environments, the food policy initiatives prove themselves important in order to ensure that state and local governments are implementing environmentally sustainable, nutritionally sound, and socially responsible policies according to the best practices we have discovered through our efforts on the ground.

Upon our arrival at Plant Chicago, we discovered that the tour was already underway and decided we should latch on to the passing group while catching up on any material that we may have missed during our debriefing at the close of the tour.  Due to the complexity of the operation at the Plant, I thought it would be helpful to include a process diagram from their website below.  The organization is poised to become Chicago’s first off grid vertical farming and artisanal food business incubator for the promotion of sustainable food production, entrepreneurship and building reuse through education, research and development.  The Plant uses the the closed loop ecological approach mentioned of Iron Street Farm earlier and scales it up to a size appropriate for our industrial technological age.  Not only will it reuse all of the organic waste material produced in its own facilities, but it will intake previously wasted animal fat from nearby food manufacturing facilities in order to power the anaerobic digester for its net-zero energy system.

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Focal points issued in the notes from our Southside Green Economy tour guides included repurposing and net-zero energy production.  Chicago sends 3.4 milling tons or 62% of its total waste to the landfill every year.  Illinois houses 21 coal plants of which two are in Chicago which are in need of being either upgraded or repowered.  This process could result in significant reductions in the overall CO² (carbon dioxide) emissions from the state.  In order for the Plant to facilitate the centralization that they will require in the repurposing of waste matter, they plan to house a number of local enterprises directly on site including a craft beer and kombucha brewery, commercial kitchen space for rent and an aquaponics operation which will cycle water between their tilapia tanks and hydroponic plant beds.

This was my first visit to the Plant and I was astonished at the magnitude of the operation and the wealth of ideas now flowing into its exploration of green industry.  The entire process both fascinating and frightening for me.  I consider myself both a scientist and enthusiast of all manner of experimentation that occurs in a way designed to be both sustainable and respectful of the delicate ecological balance we face on this planet.  As I told my fellow tour members on this day, I don’t want any of my criticisms to be taken as a detraction of the excellent work being done at the Plant.  My deeper examination of the matter tells me that we should proceed with caution in how we see this very industrial solution to changing our orientation from a carbon based approach to a carbonless approach.  Oftentimes when we find a new method of working, we stop exploring all available methods for solving our problems.

Oil was the cheap, easy and brilliant discovery of the Industrial Revolution and our focus on it killed the earliest electrical cars.  We thought we had found an endless supply of prosperity and the answer to our problems and therefore stopped examining the problem altogether.  I think that the Plant offers us an excellent experimental approach to learning what works in vertical growing and larger scaled closed loop systems.  We should learn all that we can from it, but we should not attempt to replicate exactly the same model elsewhere.  It is still rooted in a system of high energy consumption and resource overconsumption.  Consumption needs to drop.  That is not something that we can not regulate or change through external factors alone, but we need to promote the message that you will need to drive less, eat less and spend less in order to make a real impact on the future health of this planet.

Another destination that was left off of the tour due to time constraints was Blackstone Bicycle Works.  The primary highlight that our tour guides wanted us to note about Blackstone was that bikes have 0 carbon emissions which makes their shop an entirely green enterprise, but their most impressive attribute extends much deeper.  Blackstone was founded in 1994 as a project of the Resource Center which is Chicago’s oldest and longest running non-profit recycler.  In 2001, a fire forced the store to relocate from its 61st and Blackstone location into a trailer coordinated between the Resource Center and the University of Chicago.  When the building at 61st and Blackstone was restored and reconstituted as the Experimental Station, Blackstone returned to the facility and began the process again of growing its youth programming.

This last point is where I think lies the most important attribute and lesson available within Blackstone Bicycle Works.  Since their founding through to the present, they have sought to engage local youth in learning the values of entrepreneurship by employing them in the full scope of bike shop operations.  They operate both an introductory Earn A Bike program where youth can earn a bicycle, lock and helmet for 25 hours of service in the shop while learning the mechanics of bicycle repair as well a more advanced Youth Apprenticeship program where they might be responsible for higher level shop operations, mentoring newer participants and improving the customer experience.  Blackstone is not only repurposing bikes, but expanding opportunity to the youth of the neighborhood to grow and engage in a local enterprise which provides a necessary and affordable service to the community.

Our final stop on the tour was the 65th and Woodlawn Community Garden whose  highlights included local food production and stewardship.  Non-local food production expends a large amount of energy and is one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and by extension climate change.  Through the practice of sustainable and appropriate environmental stewardship, we have the capacity to increase the quantity and quality of edible green space available in our community.  The US has some 21 million acres of land devoted to the growth and tending of home lawns.  If we were to move towards the practice of building edible landscapes throughout our community, how much would that improve both the health outcomes and visual outlook of those communities?  What would be the impact on the crisis of the food desert/food swamp phenomenon?

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Plot Plans during the 2010 expansion

The 65th and Woodlawn Community Garden was originally established in 2006 on a plot of land made available to a community resident by the First Presbyterian Church.  Initially it was just a single family tilling, planting and developing the land, but they have now expanded to over 100 plots each tended by a family given wide license to grow as they please.  In one of the most interesting plots spotted that day, we saw an intricately arranged trellis with an assortment of unusual flowers, vegetables and fruit.  We were later told that this plot was tended by a botanist.

Beyond the two highlights mentioned above, the greatest attribute available to the Garden is its people.  In every instance in which I have visited this location, there is usually a small community of gardeners lounging in some sunny area holding conversation.  Gardeners come in after work to put their hands in the dark earth casting off the stress of the day.  When there is production overflow, the garden has a flag program that allows each owner to designate that some of their plot can be harvested for donation to a food pantry.  While this garden does have a fence surrounding its plots, they have taken unique step of cultivating some items directtly along the exterior of the fence which are available for general community harvesting.  In this way, the fence becomes less of a tool to divide people from one another, but a real point of engagement for community members to expose themselves further to the work of the garden and perhaps obtain plots of their own in the future.

The tour concluded with a dinner provided by Bro. Tsadakeeyah and some rousing discussion on each of our views about the locations we explored that day as we sat around a large handmade serving table at the Bronzeville Community Garden.  If you did not have an opportunity to take part in this year’s tour, I am certain that they will revisit the journey again when warmer weather returns next year.  It is necessary that we should know where these locations are and be aware of their activities so that as they expand and develop the resources around us, we can hold them accountable as a community.  We must also be accountable to them by providing our time, resources, connections and energy in order to sustain their efforts.  Our unresponsive city government provides a well founded example of what happens when we outsource the process of change to a bureaucracy.  Eventually the bureaucracy decides that it can move more expediently without our input and goes through every effort to circumvent our voice.  If we remain vigilant, forward thinking and aware, our fate cannot be dictated by any force outside of our community who may not have the best interest of that community in mind.