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What started as one Garfield Park garden blooms into so much more

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Updated: September 19, 2013 6:09AM



It’s a cliche to say that every big idea starts with a tiny seed.

In Angela Taylor’s case, it’s true.

Seed by seed, root by root, plant by plant, vacant lot by vacant lot, she fights chronic social ills in Garfield Park — crime, fresh food scarcity, fly dumping and unemployment — using gardening as her weapon.

“We don’t try to make rocket science out of gardening,” said the 52-year-old Angela, who retired last year as a social worker for the Illinois Department of Human Services. “We get soil and compost so we’re confident we’re growing good, clean products. We don’t use herbicides or pesticides. We want to put some seeds in the ground, watch them grow, and eat them.”

What started as simply cleaning up trash in a vacant lot next to her West Side home in 2004 has grown into her overseeing a community garden and greenhouse on that lot, and more than 20 other community gardens in the neighborhood. This year, 12 Garfield Park community gardens were planted with seeds germinated in the greenhouse. Dozens of people from all over the West Side, an area with a scarcity of supermarkets selling fresh produce, are growing their own vegetables and fruits in the community gardens.

Over the past nine years, she launched neighborhood programs that have shut down late night liquor stores and open air drug markets, replacing what she calls the “negative element” with rows of squash, greens and tomatoes. Working through the Garfield Park Community Council, she employs teenagers over the summer and organizes the most local farmers markets in the city, where all the produce sold is grown in the Garfield Park neighborhood. Angela loves the Earth, digging in the dirt, pulling weeds, watching plants grow, picking and eating vegetables. She loves Garfield Park, a city neighborhood with serious crime issues but where she has lived her entire life, and where she sees real potential for growth and stability. She’s a force of energy that even those who don’t know her name recognize when they see her out, sun hat and garden gloves on, usually with her husband Sam by her side.

“She and her husband are awesome people,” said Tony Brown, a 32-year-old Garfield Park resident walking his dog Midnight past a series of vacant lots on the 2900 block of West Madison where the Taylors were gardening with seven teenagers on a July morning. “It’s helping because it’s less space. We have a lot of vacancy spaces. There’s a big change now. There are less drug dealers and prostitution, more gatherings of people willing to do something.”

Sam Taylor said if someone needs help greening a space, they’ll turn to Angela, to bring a garden to a city block or plant flowers in a senior citizen’s front yard.

“She says my community is the City of Chicago,” Sam said. “It’s not just the neighborhood. She works for Humboldt Park and Lawndale, East Garfield Park and West Garfield Park. Anywhere that needs help.”

How it started

Sam and Angela Taylor met in the 1970s when Sam went to her house to get her brother for a night out.

“I picked her up, too,” he joked.

They married in 1979 and had two children, raising them in Garfield Park. He worked for the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation as a heavy machine operator. She worked as a state social worker, most recently dealing with child support cases.

The Taylors moved into their home on the 4400 block of West Fulton in 2004, a home with a small garden in the adjacent, trash-strewn lot. Sam handed Angela the keys to the house after they returned from a trip to Hawaii to celebrate 25 years of marriage.

“I was not paying the garden any attention,” Angela said. “We just wanted the house.”

Almost immediately, they started a kitchen renovation that drove Angela outside to work for a “little meditation.”

“I was working on the plot while they were hammering or banging,” she said. “Or else I would take a Valium.”

The vacant lot next to the home was filled with trash, so she cleaned it up. She attempted a small garden but it didn’t mature, so she took an urban gardening class at the Garfield Park Conservatory. For the class’s final project, 40 of her fellow students gathered in the spring of 2005 at the lot next to the Taylor’s home to plant a bigger garden.

“When she first started everyone was like — it’s something different,” said Destinee Rule, 15, Angela’s niece. “Our family doesn’t do a lot of stuff like this. She just came out with this big old garden.”

Angela saw how the garden impacted her block. People started talking to each other, asking questions. They rallied together to shut a drug market on one end of the street and tear down a vacant building on the other end. One vacant lot now is filled with fresh vegetables anyone in the neighborhood is welcome to pick.

“About 10 years ago they did all these yards, keeping it looking nice and pretty,” said Lee Harvey, 62, who lives next door to the Taylors. “Since they moved in everybody else has been pitching in and keeping their yards clean ... God blessed and God sent them to us.”

Angela said she is working off a vision she developed during the Garfield Park Conservatory class. Take vacant lots that attracted everything from blatant drug deals to piles of used tires and turn them into gardens. Train and pay teenagers to tend the gardens, teaching them about where their food comes from, the value and taste of eating fresh produce, the satisfaction that comes from working outside and watching your labor literally bear fruit.

She saw that Garfield Park could be greener, cleaner and healthier. She wanted a garden on every block.

“Once I took that class, I started to speak out about how I felt, and my vision,” she said. “You don’t have something come to you and don’t pay attention to it.”

Inside the community, her vision wasn’t a tough sell. It was a lot of hard work, though.

“I’m working harder now than I did before I retired,” Sam said. “She’s a hard-working person and I think the best thing that happened to me was when I met her.”

Connecting the teens

When Angela retired, she shifted from personally gardening throughout the neighborhood to training teenagers to do it.

“Right now my focus is to embrace the young children in a greening media,” she said. “We explore how you plant a seed, watch it and take it and grow and eat it.”

Some of those working with her said they were reluctant to tell their friends how they were spending the summer.

“A dude gardening — you know what that looks like,” said O’Keefe Perkins, 18, a Morton West High School graduate who is working with the Taylors this summer. To his surprise, his friends had a lot of questions, including how they could start gardening.

“It’s one of those types of things you swear you know what the outcome will be but it’s totally different than what you expected,” he said.

Perkins said he thinks the gardens show “that someone cares about the community.”

Tevorri Thomas, 18, a nephew of the Taylors who is working with them this summer, said working throughout Garfield Park “gives you a different thing to do in life.”

“[Friends] are all like, ‘He’s cutting flowers, he’s watering flowers,’” he said. “It shows you know how to keep up your home.” Back on their Fulton block, the Taylor’s neighbor Harvey picks greens and boils them with meat for dinner. It’s a luxury in the neighborhood, where Angela said there is no fresh produce for sale within a mile.

Beyond the fresh food, Harvey said the gardens on the former vacant lots have given him a moment of peace in the shadow of the Green Line.

“It’s nice and quiet, me and the garden,” he said. “Nothing but the birds and the bees when I’m keeping my eyes on the garden.” In quiet moments, Angela also pauses to reflect on the garden she now lives in, the garden of Garfield Park, and is inspired to keep working.

“Sometimes in my mind it’s like a vision, a dream and it actually came true,” Angela said. “Who am I to be blessed? Who am I to be worthy?”

Email: kspak@suntimes.com

Twitter: @kspak



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