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Gardening in Bronzeville

Devon Cato, a neighborhood teen who volunteered last year at the Bronzeville Community Garden in Chicago, slowed during his early morning shortcut through the garden on his walk to classes at nearby Dyett High School.

He waved when he spotted Bernard Loyd, president of Urban Juncture Foundation and waited for Loyd to finish a conversation near the front of the garden on the corner of 51st Street and Calumet Avenue.

Loyd planned to end the mid-March garden visit by 8:30 a.m., in time for a day filled with business meetings. His to-do list included an appointment with an electrician and a quick chance to finalize plans for the initial visit of volunteers who were scheduled to fortify 12 raised garden beds with compost.

“Did you hear about the trouble last night?” Cato asked when Loyd approached him with a smile and a handshake.

There had been a shooting on this tough stretch of Calumet Avenue.

“No, I haven’t heard,” Loyd said, placing his hand on the young man’s shoulder, listening calmly to the retelling of a confrontation between two young men the night before. When Cato finished, he lowered his voice.

“That’s why we can’t have nice things around here,” he said almost in a whisper.

“That’s not correct,” Loyd answered quickly. “Events like the one you describe are exactly why we are working so hard to return nice things to this neighborhood … exactly why we have to keep working,” he said, gesturing around the corner lot.

Bronzeville neighbors help themselves

Last August, on this corner of Chicago’s historic Bronzeville neighborhood, neighbors and guests mingled over refreshments featuring recently harvested fresh vegetables and herbs. They were celebrating Chicago’s newest South Side urban garden, located on the western edge of the community where Chicago-bound African-Americans settled after leaving the South to seek a better life in northern cities during the Great Migration.

A poster reminding guests about garden rules and hours of operation (6 a.m. to 10 p.m.) included a generous invitation that summed up the spirit of the day and reflected the new garden’s mission:Bronzeville Community Garden

All community members may help themselves to produce from designated community beds.

“We’re making the same offer this year with a few limitations,” said Loyd, walking through the garden after Cato continued on to high school classes.

Loyd is also president and founder of Urban Juncture development company, a venture in the final funding stages for a $9-million Cuisine of the Diaspora project, Bronzeville Cookin’, with plans to create 140 jobs among the four restaurants, produce market and parking facilities.

The 17,000-square-foot building and land already purchased for the project are one block east of the garden, adjacent to the nearby 51st Street elevated train (El) station, which is on the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) green line.

As funding continues for the last million dollars needed for the project, the garden is already earning recognition. Last year the garden leadership team won one of three of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s  GreenWorks Community Leadership Awards for 2010.

“We’re planning to reserve a small portion of produce and herbs from this year’s harvest for cooking demonstrations and community dinners,” said Loyd, when asked about changes this year.

The former partner at McKinsey & Co., who left the consulting firm after 13 years to work in Bronzeville, said he feels a sense of urgency “but wants to get things right.” He describes the Bronzeville community as home and “a tremendous ‘city within a city’ with unique culture and commerce.”

“I felt Bronzeville had great need and opportunity and decided to focus all of my time and resources on helping develop my community,” he said.

Fresh food makes a difference

Loyd said he envisioned the garden as a platform for informing the community about crop production, food preparation and the relationship between food and health.

Bernard LoydImmediate priorities for the garden are completing the wood-framed chef’s pavilion with counters and a cutting surface; and adding a water source in time for cooking demonstrations and nutrition classes scheduled to begin this summer.

Already in place, a massive wooden communal dining table and “life-size” chess/checker stations have survived Chicago’s tough winter in great shape.

“I’m looking forward to observing the spirited chess and checker games. It’s wonderful to experience a safe space for adults and children to interact,” said Chef Tsadakeeyah Emmanuel, a part of the GreenWorks award-winning leadership team who also plans to open his own restaurant, Majani 310, in the 17,000 square-foot building Urban Juncture has put in place.

Last year’s favorite crops? “We’re stressing simplicity and familiar, says the chef. Everybody loved the tomatoes. String beans came in a close second,” he said, adding, “Most of the children had never seen plants growing. When I encouraged them to taste the fresh beans from the vine, they were amazed. They were also fascinated by the edible marigolds,” he said. “This year we’re planting collards, eggplant, okra, cucumbers, melons, onions and string beans and a big assortment of fresh herbs,” he said.

“It’s hard to describe the joy of being here with the community in a garden,” said Chef Emmanuel.

“For me, it’s a great inspiration watching children and adults appreciate fresh, good food, and knowing this garden is going to make a difference for the rest of their lives … and mine.”

Donna Pierce is a Chicago-based food writer specializing in Southern, soul and Creole foodways. A contributing editor with Upscale magazine and a former assistant food editor and test kitchen director with the Chicago Tribune, Donna is the founder of and will soon launch for community cooks of all cultures and nationalities.

Photos, from top:
Bernard Loyd at the Bronzeville Community Garden.
The Bronzeville Community Garden ready for this season’s plantings.
Bernard Loyd.
Credits: Donna Pierce