Left: Quilen Blackwell; right: Cornelia McNamara
Left: Quilen Blackwell; right: Cornelia McNamara Credit: Isa Giallorenzo

When we think about Chicago, lots of things come to mind—but not always a vibrant floral industry. It wasn’t always so; in the early 20th century this was known as “The First City of Flowers”—a distinction made possible by a combination of factors, such as being located in the center of the country, having access to a railroad hub, and counting on plenty of labor and coal to fuel greenhouses. Even though things have changed since then, local flower farmers Quilen Blackwell and Cornelia McNamara believe we still have all it takes to reclaim that title. With two different ventures, they both share a love for repurposing, regenerating, and beautifying previously neglected lots. They also pivoted their businesses during the pandemic, since events were canceled and florists weren’t on demand. Despite that, thanks to new strategies such as CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscriptions, they found greater success now than in the previous years.

For Quilen Blackwell, 36, cofounder of the Chicago Eco House, it all started as a solution to a serious issue he saw in disadvantaged neighborhoods: lack of jobs. Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, Blackwell came to attend ministry school in Forest Park ten years ago. While tutoring at a high school in Englewood as part of his studies, he first interacted with abject poverty in Chicago: “All the kids and their families would talk about was [lack of] jobs. That was the impetus behind Eco House—how we could basically use a lot of the existing assets already in these communities to create jobs for young people. But we wanted to do more than just create one-off jobs that didn’t really have a career track. We wanted to find something that could really bring in real industry in the community so that there could be careers for our youth. And that’s how we eventually landed on flowers.”

Blackwell established Chicago Eco House as a nonprofit in 2014 with his wife, Hannah Bonham Blackwell, 38, whom he met through church. Their headquarters, located in Englewood, double as the family home, where they live with their three young children. Being part of the community is an integral part of their success: “You gotta put your life where your mouth is,” Blackwell says. Their flower farm—run exclusively on green energy—is just down the block from their building, but additional farms have been opened in Woodlawn, West Garfield Park, and Washington Park. In the next two to three years, Blackwell plans on tripling that to at least 12 to 15 farms around the city.

“Our big goal is to eliminate the ghetto as we know it. What I personally think is missing is a bedrock industry,” he says. On July 1, Chicago Eco House will open Southside Blooms, their first storefront in Englewood. There they will be creating organic job opportunities for the youth trained in their programs. Blackwell mentions they recently got into a partnership with the Circuit Court of Cook County’s Juvenile Probation division, whose goal is to create a “prison-to-flower farm” pipeline. “Who would have thought that vacant lots, flowers, bees, and chickens would be drawing a lot of these teens so that we could provide a bit of respite from all the craziness they have to deal with every day in their lives?” he says.

Chicago Eco House has been so successful that they already sold out their CSA membership for this year ($250 for six bouquets, paid in advance). They offer blooms such as tulips, daffodils, Persian lilies, hyacinths, China asters, zinnias, sunflowers, and peonies. By summer they intend to add more products to their online shop, featuring items made in their community—those include recycled greeting cards, ceramics made from broken glass bottles, and honey; Christmas wreaths will be available in the fall. “We can’t offer flowers year-round, but we always have something for sale to keep our youth employed,” says Blackwell. Besides having a high social impact, their flowers are produced without any pesticides or chemicals—an exception in the environmentally degrading flower industry.

Also conscious about green practices is farmer and florist Cornelia McNamara, 49. “We are composting all of our organic waste with Healthy Soil Compost, whom we trade services with. But the biggest thing we do to reduce our carbon footprint is growing our flowers rather than importing them from other continents.” Growing her own blooms gives McNamara more options as well. A seasoned florist hailing from New York City, and the daughter of the late Omie Daniels, who once managed the now legendary Green Inc. plant and flower store in Old Town, McNamara has dedicated her life to flowers: “I’m used to working with flowers from the best farms and greenhouses on the planet, so I have the advantage of really knowing what a premium flower is.” Being taken on a farm tour with her is like visiting a garden of delights, immersed in breathtaking views, fragrances, and even tastes. McNamara proudly presents her blooms, which include ranunculus, anemones, and peonies in the spring, lisianthus, poppies, and clematis in the summer, and dahlias, hydrangeas, and grasses in the fall.

During the pandemic she had extra time to dedicate herself to Five Row Farm, a former parking lot that borders Garfield Park and West Town, provided by the S&B Finishing Company. “Finding growing space has been a very difficult and painful process. Farms are not made to be moved, but we have had to move farm sites four times,” she says. McNamara started farming in 2008, with the help of family friend Michael Thompson, who founded the Chicago Honey Co-op. Her dream is to create a permanent flower farm in Chicago, which will serve the city as “a floral folk school and sanctuary.” In her promotional video, she says, “It’s a vision that I can see in my head and I think we’re going to be able to make it happen. I’m thrilled!”