Creating Green Space in the Lawndale Triangle

When Chicago was founded in 1837, it took on the motto “urbs in horto” -- city in a garden. But depending on what part of the city you’re in, the garden may feel out of reach. So, in one West Side neighborhood, residents have taken matters into their own hands.

Life in a part of North Lawndale called “the triangle” can feel kind of isolated. The triangle is so named because it’s bounded by Kenneth, Ogden, and Cermak, says neighborhood leader Alice Stallworth.

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“There’s not a school, there’s not a grocery store, there’s not a park, there’s not a playground,” Stallworth said. “We have one barbershop, one cleaners, one restaurant and a lot of car shops, and that’s it.”

There was also an empty lot that Stallworth saw as an opportunity. There used to be homes here that she says were torn down in the 1970s, and it’s been empty ever since. Now, it’s becoming a community garden with a focus on bringing young people and seniors together.

“They are going to be able to come to an area where they can get a little exercise and garden and have fresh vegetables and fruits,” Stallworth said. “We have a lot of gardeners in the triangle, but they have no place to garden.”

The park, which is scheduled to open later this year, will also have a walking path and a seating area. Stallworth and her neighbors got help from the city, which purchased the lot, and from the nonprofit group NeighborSpace, which helps manage community green space around Chicago.

“Community gardens fill a niche. Parks are wonderful, forest preserves are wonderful, but they’re not the right open space in every context,” Ben Helphand, executive director of NeighborSpace, said. “Sometimes you need a community-managed space. Something that’s small, something that’s agile, something that can adapt more easily to the community.”

NeighborSpace works with gardens in 36 of Chicago’s 50 wards, covering some 23 acres. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 8,000 acres and nearly 600 parks managed by the Chicago Park District. But in some neighborhoods, a community green space is the only place to gather. Neighbor Shirley McCastle lives a block from the future park and says she’s ecstatic.

“It’s beautiful to me because we don’t have anything over here,” McCastle said. “That is really beautiful, the plans they have now.”

The city’s own open space plan calls for a park within a short walk of every resident, but for many Chicagoans, that’s not the reality. Through a combination of public and private money -- and more than a year of work by park organizers -- it’s becoming a reality in the Lawndale Triangle. McCastle says the park will be the place neighbors have to visit, other than going door-to-door.

“This is it. We don’t have a space for that right now, except for this. This is all we have,” McCastle said.

“In terms of serving a need, I’ve never seen a community garden that’s served a need more than this,” Helphand said. “It’s just simply providing open space where there is none.”

And it’s not just open space. Studies from Texas A&M, the Trust for Public Land, the CDC, and many other groups show green spaces like this one can reduce crime, improve community health, quality of life, and even property values. For park leader Alice Stallworth, it’s all about bringing the community together.

“I’m very excited. As tired as I am -- you know, every time somebody talks about the triangle garden it just brings tears to my eyes almost, because it’s really going to happen,” Stallworth said.

The Illinois EPA has granted approval for the site plan. The city has agreed to do the cleanup work, which could begin later this summer.

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