Memorial Day Weekend, 1988

The ground has been warm enough for two months, but this is the first chance I’ve had to dig my plot, number 13 in the Frankie Machine Community Garden. I jump on the rim of the shovel several times; if I’m lucky, I have found a spot in between the stones, bricks, pistons, and plumbing buried just beneath the surface, and I can pry up a small crescent of dirt as dry and hard as plaster. I have been here almost an hour, and I have only puckered the surface of a fraction of my plot. The temperature is in the 90s, I am sweating like a pig, and my feet have been bruised through my tennis shoes.

Mr. Ramos, the owner of the house to the west of the garden, has been watching my labor from his back porch. He calls me over to the fence, in a voice so garbled from a cleft palate that I can’t tell at first whether he’s speaking English or Spanish. “Ynoo wnan an pink ucks?” I think he asks.

In doubt of his meaning, I fall back on a smile. I point at my garden and dramatically wipe my forehead with my forearm. “Hard work,” I say.

He looks at me as if I’m an idiot. “Ynoo wnan an pink unks?” he repeats. I smile like I am an idiot. “An pink unks, an pink unks!” he shouts, and his arms swing around his head.

He is wielding an imaginary tool. An ax? No, a pickax! “Yes, please,” I laugh, “a pickax. Yes! Thank you much!”

I take the new tool to my plot; with it I am able to dig a bit deeper and a bit faster, but every blow reverberates through my arms and back, and my gloveless hands become blistered and raw in minutes.

I am taking a break when I see Jenny approach. She is stooped, white-haired, perhaps 70, but walking older on her cane. Her face is drawn and lined. She stops at my plot and pulls out a cigarette, which I light for her. She takes a puff absentmindedly. “Vat are you doing?” she asks.

“Getting ready to plant,” I reply.

She shakes her head sadly. “It vill never verk,” she says.

When she is gone, I take a couple of desultory swings at the ground, but my heart is no longer there. I drop the pickax over the fence and go home.

I grew up in a small town in the farm country of southern Michigan. My parents grew up in southwest Iowa. My father’s family owned a farm, and my mother’s, though they lived in town, had a large garden. I was regaled from an early age with stories about shucking corn by hand, Mabel the house-trained pig, and large vegetables: “They grow ’em big out there.”

I entered puberty as a late-blooming hippie at the beginning of the ecology movement. The summer I turned 14 my older brother and I dumped load upon load of horse manure, leaves, and ground corncobs into a large hole in our backyard. We watered the pile and let it simmer over the winter. The next summer the tomato plants grew six feet tall and three feet in diameter. A pumpkin glowed orange 15 feet up the neighbor’s juniper tree. Strawberries almost the size of teacups. I was hooked.

The summer of the wonder garden, I visited my uncle in Chicago. I was fascinated by the city, with its crowds and bustle. One day I took the train down to the Museum of Science and Industry. The el was quite elevated and I could look down into the decimated south-side ghetto. “That’s crazy,” I said to a man sitting next to me, “they should make gardens out of those lots so people could feed themselves.”

My seat partner turned out to be a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago. “It’s not so easy as that,” he replied. “Maybe the people down there don’t want gardens. They are city people, after all.”

I protested: urbanites eat too, and a connection with the earth was, to use a buzzword of the period, natural. But a seed of doubt had been planted.

I live in an area called either West Town, East (Ukrainian) Village, or Humboldt Park, depending on whether the person speaking is a city administrator, a real estate salesman, or an urbanologist. The residents are mostly Latino or Polish, with a smattering of euphemistically named “urban pioneers.” Until very recently, vacant lots were plentiful and cheap in the neighborhood; the depressed prices of existing buildings didn’t justify new construction.

1800 and 1802 W. Haddon were two such lots. They used to be occupied by two- or three-flats, or perhaps a small factory loft building–all are common to the area. But whatever was there burned down (a fact I literally have been able to dig up), and the land became parking and open-air garages for local residents. Auto parts, packaging, and free-lance garbage lay in piles, an industrial-strength wildlife refuge for rats and feral cats.

In 1986 Luis Gutierrez won the pivotal aldermanic race here in the 26th Ward, the one that tipped the City Council balance in favor of Harold Washington. The margin of victory was small, and to protect the newfound majority, funds for community improvement became readily available. Gutierrez’s captain in the Ninth Precinct, in which the lots are located, proposed a garden for the space. A police order removed the cars, and the Department of Streets and Sanitation hauled away the refuse and spread a layer of fluffy topsoil over the lots.

But before the first gardener plotted the first row of tomatoes, the cars returned, and the topsoil became indistinguishable from the original dirt.

In April 1988, my friend Marjorie Isaacson told me that the East Village Association (EVA), a community organization to which she belonged, was planning a public garden on the lots. At a March meeting, Gutierrez had claimed that a lack of community interest had stymied the original project; Margie and Mark Frohman, under the auspices of EVA, hoped to prove him wrong. They posted signs in English and Spanish announcing the garden. With volunteer labor they cleaned up the lot and installed a donated chain-link fence. A dozen people or so showed up for an organizational meeting. The alderman promised a ten-year lease from the city.

Although I had missed the meeting, I begged my way into a garden space. I had seen the lots, and I recognized a challenge: the years of parked cars and dripping oil had created a corrugated hardpan; if this could be made fertile, one could do the same with anything short of concrete. I plied Margie with tales of my pubescent green thumb, and promised my aid and expertise. She reserved one of the 10-by-25-foot plots for me.

Margie told me and Lois Grimm, a graphic designer and garden member, that an officer of EVA wanted to name the project “Haddon-Wood Gardens.” We all agreed this choice sounded more like a trailer park, or perhaps a 19th-century insane asylum, than a garden. I suggested we name it after Frankie Machine, the protagonist in Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm. Frankie was a resident of the area, a gambler and a morphine addict. Lois quickly designed a striking five-color sign to be placed at the corner of the lots. She chose dice to represent both Frankie and the chance inherent in gardening; syringes were rejected as too controversial.

Puerto Rican Independence Day, June 11, 1988

Margie has obtained, through some adroit bureaucratic wrangling, a permit to use a nearby fire hydrant. We are fortunate, for the heat and the drought have caused a rash of illegal hydrant openings, and the city is cracking down. Today Margie and I have been filling up the three 55-gallon drums that constitute the garden’s water system. While the drums fill she runs around in her mud-spattered coveralls, madly planting flowers in unoccupied territory.

It is a pleasant time in the garden; it is very hot, almost 100 degrees, but this is the day of the Puerto Rican parade, and the neighborhood is filled with cars bristling with red, white, and blue flags. They drive by honking and waving; some flags are bigger than the cars that carry them.

Suddenly the water stops flowing from the hose. Margie is concerned that someone is stealing the special adaptive cap we use. She runs around the corner.

She is relieved to see a fire truck parked next to the hydrant. The crew of half a dozen is underneath a giant American flag, the biggest flag we have seen all day, blowing in the wind. “Hi,” she smiles. “It’s OK, we have a permit.”

The captain is off the truck, standing by the hydrant. He eyes Margie, he eyes the special wrench in her hand. “Where did you steal that?” he demands.

“Wh-we have a permit from the Water Department! It’s for a community garden!” she sputters.

“That’s a lie!” the captain shrieks. He lunges for the wrench. They struggle, but Margie pulls it free. The captain gets back on the truck, with the cap, and the firemen drive away.

The Fire Department eventually gives back the cap, but we decide we need a safer water supply. Fred and George are bearded bachelor brothers in their 40s who live a couple of houses away. Jenny is their mother. They have plot number six, and they generously donate the use of their outdoor spigot.

Later, Jenny is looking at her sons’ plot; nothing is alive, except for a sparse crop of opportunistic witchgrass. I walk over and stand next to her. Jenny looks at me and smiles faintly. “My boys . . . ,” she says, shaking her head and putting her hand to her chest. “But they have good hearts.”

July 1988

Cliff is a large man in his mid-30s who grew up in the neighborhood. He owns an apartment building catercorner to the southeast end of the garden. He works for the Department of Public Health and is an enthusiastic weight lifter, the evidence of which shows up through his tight polo shirts.

He was the first gardener out in the spring, and he attacked the obstinate earth with herculean effort. He removed giant foundation stones from his plot, he pulverized the dirt into powder. He planted a sea of tomato stakes and he carried gallon after gallon of water to the little plants every morning.

But now, as the city reels under the oppressive summer skies, Cliff is no longer seen in the garden. The tomato plants are small, almost dead, and they push out little hard green spheres in a valiant, vain attempt at life.

The heat has weeded out other gardeners as well. Fifteen plots were available at the beginning of the year, and a dozen were claimed; now, perhaps six are still tended.

Fausto is among the survivors. A young man in his late 20s, he is always well dressed in hip, urban, baggy clothes. He works in a warehouse, goes part time to mechanic’s school, and takes nighttime English courses at the local high school. He is very shy about this second language, and he speaks so quietly that I sometimes have trouble hearing him. He lives in the tenement building across the alley to the north, in a two-bedroom apartment he shares with several people.

The preparation of his plot, done with the help of his roommates, was simple: he removed the smaller stones, dug shallow trenches across the width and around the perimeter, and took the dirt from them and mounded it into rows. In these he planted not only the universal tomatoes and peppers, but also, to my surprise, a large patch of radishes and carrots.

Thwarted by the resistant dirt, these now grow not down into but up out of the ground, rows of orange and red thumbs with green feathers sprouting from their tips.

Lois the graphic designer is another one who’s still around. She is a diminutive, dark-haired woman who works in the Loop. She lives a block to the east in two floors of a loft building she renovated. Her plot is the most successful in the garden, with healthy crops of red cabbage, violette di Firenza eggplants, and radicchio. She can be seen diligently tending her plants in the late afternoon, wearing a Chinese coolie hat, English gardening gloves, and Quoddy Moc shoes (“very fashionable on the east coast”). She is aided in her efforts by her horse Juno, who lives in an Old Town stable and hippodrome, and contributes a couple of bags of manure per week.

Margie is worried about the lease: an aldermanic aide promises, in mid-month, to deliver it to her house the next day; by the month’s end, we are still technically squatters on city land.

Labor Day Weekend, 1988

It is nearly dusk, and I’m here after work pulling witchgrass from around the fence. We had some light rain about a week ago, and the invasive weed had been ready for the chance: what had been a brown, thin population during the worst of the drought has burst across the garden and gone to seed in these few days. But the rain also has softened the soil enough to allow pulling the grass, roots and all, the only way to get rid of it. I am making witchgrass hay while the sun sets.

The gate squeaks, and I look up to see my neighbor in the plot to the south, Victoria. She is a handsome Mexican woman whose high cheekbones suggest Indian ancestry. Victoria lives in the same tenement building as Fausto, where she shares a two-bedroom apartment with her husband and four children. Tonight she is followed by about a dozen hyperkinetic kids, and she carries her year-old baby in a battered bassinet. The troop arrives at the plot. Victoria puts the bassinet on the ground, ready to work.

I approach. “Buenas noches,” I say, exhausting my knowledge of Spanish.

“Good evening,” she says, spending her English.

Victoria smiles and waves her arm approvingly at my plot. I am embarrassed; I have not watered for weeks, and my garden contains only two anemic eggplants and a modest bell pepper. I try to accept the compliment gracefully, however.

I nod at her garden, filled with cilantro, tomatoes, and beans. I mime special praise for her mottled black-and-green hot peppers. I point. “What kind?” I ask.

She looks at the pepper plants and then back at me: she does not know what I want. Rudolfo, a boy of about ten, translates. She brightens. “Serranos,” she replies.

Rudolfo relays an offer to me. “Sure, I’d love to try one,” I say. Victoria picks a perfect pepper and hands it to me. The kids gather around, barely holding their laughter; they are ready to watch the gringo fry his taste buds.

I take a bite. Serranos are, I discover, roughly analogous to napalm. The kids are not disappointed, and they laugh and squeal uncontrollably.

I work for another hour, with the help of half the troop. We clear almost two lots of witchgrass. Then I use my Spanish again, go home, and eat a quart of pistachio ice cream.

October, 1988

Little is still growing, but the work continues. Lois has arranged a deal with the stables whereby she receives a free riding lesson for every load of manure she convinces someone to take. The first load is coming to the Frankie Machine Community Garden on the same day that a load of mushroom compost (a by-product of commercial mushroom production) is scheduled to be delivered, courtesy of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

I take a long lunch from work. Both loads are supposed to be dumped, and Lois and I should be there to open the fence and guide the trucks.

The first load, the manure, is an hour late. When it arrives, I am surprised to see a trailer perhaps 20 by 7 feet with manure piled high above the 5-foot walls. The drivers are stable hands, and they have never backed the truck up before; that process takes about an hour on our crowded narrow streets, and involves numerous stalls.

Similarly, the drivers have never dumped a load this large; something seems to be wrong with the hydraulics. The drivers curse their boss (“cheap asshole”) and their truck (“cheap piece of shit”). They finally manage to get the trailer up in dumping position, but the hydraulic pump burns out, and down the trailer comes before a hundredth part of the manure is on the ground. It seems they have forgotten to unlatch the load-restraining chains.

So Lois, the drivers, and I start to unload the trailer by shovel. The day is pleasant enough, about 80 degrees and sunny, but on and in the manure mountain it must be over 100, and the ammonia is burning our eyes and lungs. We take shifts, and the drivers go get a case of beer.

Three hours later, after we have unloaded around 25 cubic yards of manure by hand and a case of beer among us, the 15 yards of mushroom compost show up. It is cool, and smells nice, but there is not enough room to dump all of it in the garden; it gets dumped across the sidewalk, and Lois and I have to haul it in by wheelbarrow.

I see Jenny walking by on her way to the store, giving a wide berth to our pile. I’m not sure, but I think I see her head shake as she hobbles by.

That night, I fall asleep with my clothes on, and my apartment smells like horse manure for a week.

Memorial Day Weekend, 1989

This year, all the plots are occupied. The same people are back, plus Eunice, a retired woman from Alabama whose territorial advances recall the Civil War; Rachel, an artist whose seeds are all French; and Mr. Ramos, whose crops reflect the two decades he spent working, it turns out, in a commercial greenhouse. All the people who stopped gardening last year because of the drought have replanted, with the exception of Cliff, who will plant “any day now.” One plot has been left to grow corn for a garden festival planned for Labor Day. The rains have been good, and although the spring was almost a month behind last year, by now the garden is more verdant than it ever was. There are only three or four yards left of the manure/compost; blades of witchgrass are few and far between.

The garden is being used in other ways as well. One mother, in the afternoon, leaves her young children behind the gate to play for an hour or so; they seem to be fascinated by the growing things. Other kids come by themselves and help with the watering or weeding, and they all are careful not to walk off the paths. Older people stand at the fence and kibitz, pointing out different plots; I think they are gardening by proxy, much as people build vicariously at construction sites.

Legally, however, the garden is on shaky ground: we still don’t have a lease. In March a developer tried to buy the lot; Alderman Gutierrez helped prevent the sale, but then informed us that only three-year leases were available. The city real estate office at first claimed that leases to community gardens didn’t exist; then they relented, but said that in order to get the lease, the gardeners first had to obtain insurance, which of course is impossible without first obtaining a lease. In April Gutierrez ascended to the chairmanship of the City Council’s Land Acquisition Committee. This meant, his staff assured us, that a ten-year lease was imminent. Now, after more than a year of phone calls and letters, his staff is “working on it.” The gardeners talk half seriously about chaining themselves to the fence when the bulldozers come.

In mid-May, Jenny died. She had been ill for some time, with diabetes and congestive heart failure. I told Fred when I saw him that I would miss his mother coming around and telling me “it von’t verk.” He smiled. “You know,” he said, “she liked coming over here.”

I know, I said.

“When I was a kid,” he said, “we had two city lots like these. George and me would help with the weeding and the picking, but Mom dug the whole thing by herself. She was really good at it. We had everything planted–potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, corn–everything. And one time we won some gardening-in-the-city prize and we–Mom, George, and me–had our picture in the Booster. I still remember that thing.”

I hope the garden will work, Jenny; I bet you did, too.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.