City Farm’s lot is just under an acre, but the compact parcel overflows with row upon row of crimson rainbow chard, tiny sweet yellow tomatoes, broad squash leaves, and brilliant green arugula. On a recent Wednesday a few volunteers knelt in the dirt while birds twittered through the dense underbrush. Chicago’s oldest urban farm has occupied this Near North Side spot for just over 12 years, but its days here are numbered.
The farm will pack up and move by year’s end, to make way for a seven-story building that is part of the broad redevelopment of Cabrini-Green. The beleaguered public housing complex built between the mid-1940s and mid-’60s—and demolished 50 years after that—is slowly being replaced with mixed-income housing fought for and won in a long and contentious legal battle.
All around the farm there are signs of this transformation: unfinished market-rate apartment buildings whose outer skins are still Tyvek insulation; shuttered row houses cordoned off with chain-link fencing; a new Target where the high-rises once stood.
City Farm has grown crops in Chicago since the 1970s, before urban farming was a trend, or urban agriculture had its own local ordinance. By most accounts it’s the oldest urban farm in town. The farm sells produce at various farmers’ markets, but also to high-end chefs such as Rick Bayless.
So City Farm’s upcoming relocation might seem the inevitable result of redevelopment. That’s true—but it’s not the whole story.
City Farm is purposefully nomadic. The Resource Center, the nonprofit that runs the farm and several other environmentally focused businesses, owns no land. Instead, the group intentionally seeks out lots that are vacant but slated for redevelopment, knowing from the start that its time in any location will be temporary.
That’s why founder Ken Dunn is delighted about the farm’s move, which is scheduled to begin November 16.
“This is proof of the success of our mission,” he says.
What Dunn means is that City Farm’s unconventional approach to land management has been key to its longevity. But it’s also the reason the farm will eventually be pushed out of this neighborhood.
Dunn spends much of his time these days in a truck, driving to area restaurants that pay him to pick up their food waste. His face is leathery and his hands are rough, but he has a delightful, crinkly smile and speaks with the care and thoughtfulness of someone with a PhD in philosophy—which he has, from the University of Chicago.
The food waste in the truck will become valuable compost for City Farm. It’s also a good example of Dunn’s overall approach. He runs his organization with a literal trash-into-treasure mentality, taking what others have discarded and transforming it into a valuable resource.
He started in the late 60s, with the empty cans and bottles strewn around the vacant lots of Woodlawn, near his home in Hyde Park. Some of the lots were across the street from a liquor store, where men from the neighborhood would stand around and day-drink before tossing their bottles.
“I said, ‘Work with me,’ ” Dunn recounts. “‘Take these barrels and sort the bottles by color, and I’ll take them to the glass plant and then come back and split the money with you.’ It took an hour to collect, an hour to sell, and we made enough to get about $2.75 each,” or what would be nearly $19 each today.
From there Dunn launched a buy-back recycling program, hiring some of the same men to drive a truck around the neighborhood and purchase bottles that others had collected.
“The project paid for itself,” he says.
In subsequent years he launched a bevy of other businesses focused on sustainability—including City Farm—under the Resource Center umbrella.
City Farm tried owning land once. It didn’t go well. In 1974 the group purchased a lot at 61st and Dorchester for $10,000 or $15,000—between $48,000 and $72,500 today.
“It was very hard to pay a living wage and pay the mortgage on the property,” Dunn says. “Which makes the whole project somewhat questionable. If it can’t sustain itself forever then it’s not sustainable.”
So Dunn changed his approach, building relationships at City Hall, the Chicago Housing Authority, and with numerous private developers. His pitch was simple: Let me occupy land you own but aren’t currently using. When it’s time for you to build there, we’ll leave.
“We’ll keep the property secure, and when you need it for another purpose, just show us where to take the plot,” he says he told his new partners. “Why not just cultivate the surplus [land] that occurs between demolition and development?”
“It’s a shame that we have this cycle of neglect, decay, and then vacancy and rebuilding. But we have chosen not to oppose that.”
—Resource Center founder Ken Dunn
Dunn estimates that City Farm has now occupied between 20 and 30 lots over the past 40 or so years, plus “many more” community gardens, mainly in Woodlawn, Englewood, and Grand Crossing. The farm still runs two other locations, in Washington Park and Greater Grand Crossing, and one down the street at Kendall College.
It first occupied a lot in Cabrini-Green by what is now the Target in the mid-90s; Dunn shut down that farm. The group then moved another farm from Englewood—which had itself moved at least once within that neighborhood—to a lot on Clybourn Avenue now occupied by a single-room-occupancy building, before finally moving to its current wedge-shaped lot at the intersection of Clybourn and Division. Although this parcel was originally home to a gas station and not part of Cabrini-Green, the CHA has folded it into its broad redevelopment plans. (The housing authority declined to comment for this story.)
The farm’s future home is more or less next door, on a tract nearly twice as big as its current lot, directly east of the firehouse on Division. It’s the fourth farm location on or around former Cabrini-Green land.
So City Farm is moving because of the redevelopment, but the farm wouldn’t be here if the buildings hadn’t been torn down. Neighborhood change is pushing the farmers out; it’s also what ushered them in.
How do you move a farm?
Dunn makes his way through the grassy field that will eventually be City Farm’s new home. With him is the farm’s sales manager, David Durstewitz, who sports a shaggy beard and glasses.
The new, bigger lot means more vegetables—which is remarkable because the farm already grows an abundance of them. Dunn estimates that the farm can grow 30,000 pounds of veggies a year on just under an acre.
Dunn and Durstewitz survey the land as they meander through the grass.
“We’ll probably have our processing by the firehouse,” Dunn says of the covered outdoor space they’ll use to sort and package produce. “Maybe get some electricity from them for refrigeration.”
Durstewitz kneels down and finds a sewer drain hidden in the grass. They brush the blades aside to examine the grate. Retrofitting what used to be a parking lot for the purposes of growing organic vegetables is complicated; making use of this existing infrastructure will help.
“Wonderful to know this is here,” Dunn says. “We will of course close it off, but occasionally we get too much water. If it gets to be too wet we can open this up and let some drain off.”
But first they must actually move the farm. Which raises the question: How exactly does one move a farm?
The more precise question is how does one move the three or so feet of topsoil anchoring the farm? City Farm, like most urban farms, does not grow directly in the ground. Hundreds of years of industry and development have polluted Chicago’s soil with lead, arsenic, and a variety of other poisonous compounds, plus the kind of surprises that might delight an urban archaeologist; City Farm’s current lot has two leaky underground storage tanks, remnants of the old gas station.
So Dunn and his team laid down an impermeable layer of clay between the ground and topsoil. Brinshore Development, the company redeveloping the lot, will do the actual moving over the course of a week or two, using giant tractors to scoop up the topsoil, deposit it in trucks, and drive it over to the new location. Then they’ll do the process in reverse, dumping pile upon pile of the old topsoil onto the new farm, which will be lined with swimming pool covers instead of clay.
Crucially, at this phase they’ll mix the topsoil with fresh compost. Composting generates incredible heat—massive piles of decomposing plant matter, food waste, and manure can reach temperatures up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. “Many of us look forward to the move,” says Dunn, because the heat generated by mixing the old topsoil with new compost will kill the seeds of any weeds that had wormed their way into the vegetable patches.
“We get a reset in our relationship to the weeds,” he says.
But some of the other farmers worry about what else will be reset. Brittney Rigterink, for example, is the farm’s production manager—the one responsible for growing the food. She grew up on Iron Creek Farm, her family’s 100-year-old estate in LaPorte, Indiana, which in some ways couldn’t be more different from a farm forced to move every few years.
Rigterink worries about what will happen to the bacteria, fungus, and other microorganisms that make their home among the plants’ roots and help them to extract and absorb nutrients in the soil.
“My main concern is breaking that up,” she says. “It can take years to develop.”
The plants will still grow but might not be as healthy, she adds. Rigterink won’t be there to see the results of the move. She plans to return to Iron Creek after this growing season. But Dunn dismisses these concerns, pointing to his 40 years of farming with nearly as many moves.
“We’ve done this many times,” he says, “and there’s no setback.”
And besides, what could he do even if there was greater cause for concern? He has built this kind of move into the farm’s life cycle, and knows his crew will be able to stay at the new site only five years—ten years tops. At that point the neighborhood’s vacant lots will be filled with new development. The CHA plans to build between 2,330 and 2,830 units of mixed-income housing on 50 acres of land here by 2025. Neither Dunn nor anyone else interviewed for this story thinks City Farm can stay on the Near North Side longer than that.
But if the past is any indication, City Farm will live on through this inevitable future move. After all, there’s no shortage of vacant lots in the city. The Department of Planning and Development calculates that the city alone owns 13,000 vacant lots totaling about 1,700 acres. A department spokesman said he didn’t know the total number of vacant lots in the city. But based on previous conversations with the department, Dunn said, there could be three times that many vacant lots in total, nearly 40,000, mostly concentrated on the south and west sides. If City Farm is eventually displaced from the Near North Side, that’s where the farm will focus its efforts.
This imbalance of vacant land doesn’t escape Dunn’s notice. He describes the lopsided pattern of development—and the disinvestment that precedes it—as “totally corrupt and inappropriate.”
“It’s a shame that we have this cycle of neglect, decay, and then vacancy and rebuilding,” he says. “But we [City Farm] have chosen not to oppose that.” Instead, he’s devoted his life to making use of the land and other wasted resources that come from that cycle—and to influencing the process in small ways if he can.
Dunn has no animosity toward Brinshore—only praise. In turn Brinshore senior vice president Peter Levavi calls Dunn “a national treasure” and describes how his development company was influenced in its plan for the site by the farm’s methods and presence.
Brinshore is codeveloping the site with the Michaels Development Organization and the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council. The project will contain 84 residential units, 26 of which will be public housing units that contribute to the 700 overall units the CHA promised to build in the area in a legally binding agreement with former residents signed in 2000. The project’s 26 affordable units will also apply to the promised overall tally. The remainder of the units will be market rate.
Clybourn 1200, as the building is called, will also contain retail and a restaurant. But Levavi says his firm has also carved out space for a rooftop farm, complete with urban apiary installed and managed by the Chicago Honey Cooperative.
“We see it as a bridge between the income groups,” Levavi says. “Everybody loves food, everybody likes getting their hands dirty. There’s no such thing as low-income farming. It’s just farming.” Brinshore also redeveloped the former Robert Taylor Homes public housing complex in Bronzeville, which includes a two-acre farm run by the Chicago Botanic Garden.
“It’s one of the best things we’ve found to create community in a mixed-income setting,” Levavi says.
But the rooftop garden on the future Clybourn 1200 will be available to residents only. Passersby and residents from neighboring buildings won’t have access.
“One thing I’ve noticed from people who are moving into this area, people are very excited to have green space outside their window,” City Farm’s Durstewitz says. “It’s a very novel thing. When they learn the site will no longer be green space there is a lot of emotional resistance to that idea.”
The head of the Cabrini-Green LAC didn’t return calls for comment. Neither did 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett, who grew up in Cabrini-Green. But in previous interviews Burnett has said that green space, the kind that results from the demolition of the homes of nearly 15,000 people, was never the point here. It was, as Dunn would say, part of the cycle. Soon there will be new homes on those lots, and the farm will move on. v