Breaking ground near 63rd and Austin
By Dermot Connolly
The United Business Association of Midway has partnered with a grassroots group of residents planning to turn a vacant lot on 63rd Street in Clearing into a community garden.
Several residents from Clearing and Garfield Ridge led by Mary Bergunder, Erika Gutierrez and Vanessa Sepcot have been trying for a couple of years to get a community garden in their neighborhood.
Originally, before the pandemic, the backyard gardeners had approached the Chicago Park District with a request to use a section of Stars and Stripes Park for the project they call the Clearing-Garfield Ridge Community Garden.
“I got my inspiration after seeing a similar community garden in Oak Lawn, located near 104th Street and Cook Avenue,” said Bergunder. That half-acre garden is on the grounds of the old McGugan Middle School. It was created through a partnership between the village, the Oak Lawn Park District, and School District 123.
“It just never worked out with the Park District here,” said Bergunder, a home health nurse who grows fruit and vegetables in her backyard in Clearing.
Her group kept searching for an appropriate site and noticed the empty lot located in the 5900 block of West 63rd Street, sandwiched between Bernie Streit’s Fireside Realty, at 5943 W. 63rd St., and the 7-Eleven on the corner of Austin Avenue.
Streit, the real estate broker/owner of Fireside Realty at that location since 1968, has been maintaining the vacant site adjacent to it since buying it in 1970.
“It’s a standard Chicago lot measuring 25 by 125 feet,” said Streit, who also sits on the board of the United Business Association of Midway. Because of its close proximity to the buildings on either side of it, Streit said it is more suitable for planting vegetables than more construction.
When the women explained their plan to UBAM officials, the business organization put them in touch with NeighborSpace, the only non-profit land trust in Chicago that preserves and sustains gardens on behalf of dedicated community groups.
UBAM President Anita Cummings is a former NeighborSpace board member, and the business organization already had worked with the non-profit to develop UBAM Park, which opened in 2005 at 6200 S. Central Ave. The former site of a gas station was turned into a “passive park”, a green space with plants and trees, walking paths and benches.
According to the NeighborSpace website, there are more than 120 gardens and parks in Chicago.
“But this would only be the second one west of Cicero Avenue, after our UBAM Park,” said Cummings.
“When I read about this Garfield Ridge-Clearing community group attempting to develop a garden I knew that we could help. I offered to partner with this group since we had been through that process with UBAM Park and could assist in getting the project going,” said Cummings.
“Fireside Realty owns the vacant piece and was willing to work with NeighborSpace and the community group to get things moving. The group is truly invested in the project and with Bernie (Streit) being a UBAM board member, and my having served on the NeighborSpace board, it seems like all of the planets are aligned to develop a community garden in Clearing.”
She helped the group go through the lengthy application process, and Bergunder said Erika Gutierrez, a social worker, recently submitted the completed paperwork to NeighborSpace.
“Now, it is just up to their board to vote on it,” said Bergunder
“There is a need for this here. There is nothing like that in our neighborhoods,” said Sepcot. The Garfield Ridge resident is a teacher at the University of Chicago Lab School and has been growing tomatoes and other vegetables from seeds with hopes of planting them in the new garden this year.
“I really wish we had it last year, when everyone was in lockdown during the pandemic. But it just didn’t happen,” she said.
Bergunder said she hopes to plant fruit trees as well as vegetables on the site, so it will be attractive to look at all year-round.
“We are working out the details (about whether the site can be divided into separate plots for local gardeners). But I want to make the produce available to local residents,” she said, noting that produce from the garden in Oak Lawn is donated to food pantries. “Many seniors and families find it hard to afford fresh fruit and vegetables,” she said, suggesting that the produce could be donated to local agencies, such as the Garfield Ridge Satellite Senior Center, 5674B S. Archer Ave.