For almost three years students in several overcrowded Rogers Park public grade schools have been relegated to makeshift classrooms in cafeterias, auditoriums, and washrooms, while their parents have pleaded unsuccessfully with Board of Education officials for relief. New construction requires money. And board officials, wary of opposition to tax hikes even for noble causes, dillydallied on the issue, often refusing to meet with parents or even return their phone calls.

Last year, after months of aggressive lobbying, the board finally agreed to build a school for about 750 of the children who now attend the Gale and George Armstrong schools. Some officials seemed to think of the site–which is just north of Pottawattomie Park, 7340 N. Rogers–as a weed-filled patch of land. However, now that the board is drafting plans and receiving accolades for the proposed school, it turns out that the site is not just any old vacant lot. It is the Pottawattomie Park Gardens–a community garden where fruit, vegetables, and flowers are carefully and diligently cultivated by a dedicated core of local residents.

Outraged that the proposed school, which is supposed to open by 1992, would mean the end of their garden, the gardeners are circulating petitions to have the following advisory referendum placed on the ballot in the February 26 mayoral election: “Shall the Board of Education build onto existing schools or use underutilized facilities rather than construct a costly new public school . . . next to Pottawattomie Park?” It promises to be a nasty neighborhood feud.

“The garden gives us a little peace, a little break from the concrete and brick of the city,” says Irene Trion, a Rogers Park resident and leader of the garden group. “It’s not that we’re antischool. We just think there have to be other ways of solving the overcrowding problem without destroying one of the few parcels of green we have left in the city.”

Convictions run just as strong among the school’s supporters. “I agree that gardens are great, but we have a crying shortage of class space,” says Ede Snyder, principal of Gale. “If some developer were coming in to build yuppie town houses, I could see opposition taking hold. But we’re talking about the educational future of our children. When you have classrooms in cafeterias and on auditorium stages, how can you be against a school?”

The fight stems from nearly ten years of surprising demographic changes in Rogers Park that caught the central administration off guard. For years school officials struggled with a declining school-age population, as children of the older Rogers Park families grew up and moved out of the neighborhood. But in the last few years many larger black, Hispanic, Russian, West Indian, and Asian families have moved to the area. The impact was seen at schools such as Gale, which was built for 750 students but now has more than 1,000 enrolled.

At both Armstrong and Gale many of the new students are not fluent in English and must have bilingual classes in separate rooms. Some schools have bilingual programs in three or four languages, and each program requires a separate classroom. “We have the staff, and we have some great programs,” says Snyder. “But we don’t have the classrooms. The issue has always been, where do we put the children?”

At Armstrong some teachers have had to make do with a hallway classroom; at Gale classes are sometimes still taught on the auditorium stage. The problem is also severe in several West Rogers Park and Edgewater schools, where classes have been conducted in basement boiler rooms.

With the School Reform Act of 1988, day-to-day control of school contracts and budgets was passed to locally elected councils of parents, teachers, community representatives, and principals. For many north-side councils, the primary issue was overcrowding. “If you went to any council meeting in the last few years, chances are you’d hear some horror story about overcrowding,” says Snyder. “The conditions were intolerable.”

The school board resisted most requests for new classrooms. It pleaded poverty and argued that more classrooms meant less money for salaries, which would increase the likelihood of a strike.

But last year local-school-council members managed to win the support of such influential state legislators as Senator Arthur Berman. Under pressure from Berman, the school board agreed to attack the problem by building prefab additions, renting classroom space from church schools, and building one new school. The site across the street from Pottawattomie Park seemed ideal because the board already owned it. “The board has owned this land since at least the 1950s,” says Snyder. “Obviously, you cut your costs if you already own the land. We might as well put it to use.”

Some longtime residents say the board intended to build a school there roughly 30 years ago. But those plans were dropped, and the land has been used for a garden ever since.

The site, Trion says, is suited for a garden. At one time a nursery was located there, and it still has pipes that carry water for irrigation. Over time the garden has been subdivided into 41 lots that rent for $10 a year–the money covers water bills. Trion and another gardener, Darrell Blobaum, trim the weeds that grow on the common pathways. At the peak of the summer season spinach, broccoli, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, turnip greens, and corn fill the lot. Most of the gardeners get along–they hold a picnic once or twice a year. “We’re not an official group with a lot of clout,” says Trion. “We’re just a bunch of people who love the earth.”

“It’s like a sanctuary in here against the city,” adds Abdul Ameen, a gardener who lives in Rogers Park. “You come in here, and the outside world is just blotted out. You don’t hear the cars or the traffic. Or maybe you do, and it doesn’t matter. It also has a practical use–my family eats the food we grow.”

Trion–whose garden includes sunflowers, morning glories, and roses–says local schools should use the garden to help teach botany. “Not many kids ever get the practical experience of weeding, fertilizing, or taking care of life,” she says. “You plant a seed in the ground, and something grows. That’s the miracle of life. You can learn to appreciate life.”

Like other gardeners, Trion complains that she was not notified of plans for the new school. “I heard about it at a community meeting this summer. I was upset. I began to wonder how much planning did they do? Did they look at other sites? I began to study the issue.”

She became convinced that overcrowding should be solved in other ways. “We shouldn’t have to build a new school. Can’t we add on to existing schools or go to a 12-month year? There are economic issues at stake here. Building a new school costs too much money, and yet the school board acts as though each new school will somehow magically solve our educational problems. They never justified the new school. There was never any debate.”

Trion also contends that a new school would worsen traffic congestion in the surrounding community. “These streets are already too narrow to handle the traffic. You have to ask yourself, where are teachers going to park their cars? I hope they don’t build a new parking lot. We don’t need any more asphalt.”

School activists and officials counter that the new school will blend in well with the surrounding community. “As I understand it, the new school will be a state-of-the-art building,” says Snyder. “It will have skylights, a cafeteria, an auditorium, and plenty of windows. It will be an anchor to the community, not a liability. I guess I have a little difficulty feeling too sorry for the [gardeners]. We’ve been discussing the issues of overcrowding for years. We’ve gone over the economics of adding on to new buildings. Where have they been? Don’t they read the newspapers?”

For the moment, it’s doubtful that the gardeners can gather enough opposition to block the project. The garden is in the 49th Ward, whose alderman–recently elected Cook County clerk David Orr–is resigning. And none of the candidates running for Orr’s seat has yet taken the gardeners’ side. “I understand why they would be reluctant to get involved,” says Trion. “It’s hard to look like you’re against schools. But we’re not giving up. If our referendum gets a large turnout to vote against the school, that will force the politicians to act.”

Nonetheless, the school’s supporters remain confident. “We have tried everything,” says Snyder. “At Gale we already have a 12-month school year. It has its advantages. We are able to schedule vacations so not all of our students are in the building at the same time. But even with a year-round schedule there are still some months when we have a classroom on the stage. Maybe we can find another site in the area for the garden. But I don’t think we should tolerate overcrowded school conditions like that any longer.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.