Why not farm the inner city?

Even on its best days Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood is missing teeth from its smile. Spawned by the railroad in the late 19th century, the neighborhood grew fast, giving shelter to immigrants who worked in Chicago’s stockyards, railyards and factories–including my family. It was never a peaceful place, as one wave of immigrants after another struggled to adapt to American life, and as they brushed up against African Americans settling there in the Great Migration from the South.
Parts of Englewood were devastated by riots in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, by insurance fires landlords set as property values dropped, and by a city policy of knocking down vacant buildings in underprivileged areas.
Englewood still has stately graystones and vast apartment warrens, like any other Chicago neighborhood, but there are some blocks where only a few buildings, or one, or none, still stand. In their place: vacant lots.
To these fertile urban pastures comes an idea with almost too many layers of good. A non-profit called Growing Home has converted two vacant lots, so far, into organic gardens. Local produce costs less–both economically and environmentally–so why not grow it in the inner city? Growing Home’s food is sold at farmer’s markets and at Chicago restaurants, including notables like Charlie Trotter’s, Blackbird, and Handlebar.
But the farm is only half the story. Growing Home makes organic farmers, who have to be the savviest sort of farmers, out of some of Englewood’s least employable residents–people who have been incarcerated, homeless, or have had substance abuse issues–in a job-training program that lasts seven months, the duration of Chicago’s reliable growing season.
I cross Englewood almost daily, and if there’s a bright side to Chicago’s hypersegregation, it’s the brutal honesty of it. Hope persists here with no illusions about the struggle ahead. I also cross more privileged neighborhoods, where concrete and asphalt grows faster than grass. Also lamentable. Growing Home has an idea that I hope takes hold: making Chicago’s neglected spaces more green, while making Chicago’s neglected people more skilled.
The group recently released this video:
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