Pullman Residents Turn Former Toxic Waste Site Into Community Garden

By Erika L. Sánchez on August 19, 2013 6:43am 

 Garden co-founder Erin Delaney (r.) meets with Saleem Abdul of the Roseland Community Development Corporation at the new Cooperation Operation community garden in Pullman.
Garden co-founder Erin Delaney (r.) meets with Saleem Abdul of the Roseland Community Development Corporation at the new Cooperation Operation community garden in Pullman.
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Monica Wizgird

PULLMAN — A former toxic waste site in Pullman has been transformed into a community garden overflowing with produce — and its creators have big plans to expand it in a neighborhood that has been dubbed a "food desert."

The garden at 114th Street and Langley Avenue is largely made up of planters, including some abandoned boats from nearby Calumet Harbor. But organizers hope to grow it and even build a greenhouse.

"Our plan is to dramatically increase our yield every year,” said garden co-founder Erin Delaney, 23, who lives in Pullman.

“We're looking to turn a former toxic waste site into food for the entire area," added Justin Booz, another co-founder who grew up in Pullman.

The garden traces its roots to January, when a group of residents and activists formed a group called the Cooperation Operation and made plans to bring to life what was an empty lot.

“This had been a vacant lot my entire life,” said Booz, 25. “About 10 years ago, this was a toxic waste site. I wasn't allowed to come back here and play. There was all sorts of contamination.”

According to activists, the building used to be a chemical-processing facility. The building burned down in the late 1990s, long after it had been closed by the EPA.

The Chicago Park District now owns the lot. Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) backed the organizers' plans to turn it into a garden, and the group was given permission to use the land for five years.

Co-founder Monica Wizgird, 27, of Pilsen, said that though some contamination remains at the site, the lot was cleaned up by the EPA and is no longer considered a “toxic zone."

While much of it is covered in concrete, these urban gardeners have planted wild flowers and sunflowers in other areas to naturally extract metals from the soil.

As for the fruits and vegetables, they are being grown in beds constructed from cinder blocks and old boats acquired from the harbor. The organization, Friends of Pullman, initiated contact between the garden and the marinas to acquire the boats.

 Cooperation Operation community garden co-founders Liz Nerat, Justin Booz and Erin Delaney.
Cooperation Operation community garden co-founders Liz Nerat, Justin Booz and Erin Delaney.
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Erika L. Sanchez

Delaney said many of the boats were donated and would have otherwise ended up in a landfill.

During the first few months, the group's members funded the project out of their own pockets, but it has since raised $10,000 through a Kickstarter campaign. Many residents have donated raw materials and volunteered to work in the garden.

The harvest includes carrots, cucumbers, onions, beets, swiss chard and corn. Many of the seeds they use are heirlooms and all of the produce is organic.

“We'll save the seeds and share that with the community, and hopefully create a strong seed bank on the South Side, which is another integral part of food security,” Delaney said.

Because Pullman residents are located in a food desert, their options for healthy foods are very limited. The group has promoted the garden by going door-to-door in the neighborhood. Residents are offered free plots; produce is also free to residents. 

Though the city celebrated significant gains in reducing the number of food deserts, nearly 80,000 residents still live more than a mile from a large grocery store.

The group has also sold produce at the Roseland Farmers Market. They hope to offer an alternative to a nearby Walmart scheduled to open in mid-September.

“Many of us were activists from different walks of life and had been in lots of work in different arenas and found a significance in food justice activism,” said co-founder Liz Nerat, 26, of Pullman. “Everything ultimately comes down to food.”

They also hope to build a greenhouse, which would help provide food year-round.

“We want to establish a really successful staple garden, so people can have access to a lot of their own flowers, a lot of their own hearty vegetables for the winter,” Delaney said.

The cooperative would also like to eventually plant in ground using the Washington Park City Farm model developed by Ken Dunn, which utilizes a giant clay bowl filled with compost and wood chips.

The entire lot is 2.5 acres. Booz said that they not only intend to build on the concrete portions of the site, but also use the surrounding field.

“This entire lot is 2.5 acres. On 1 acre we can feed this entire neighborhood,” said Booz. “On a half-acre you can feed hundreds of people.”

 The Cooperation Operation's community garden in Pullman used abandoned boats as planters.
The Cooperation Operation's community garden in Pullman used abandoned boats as planters.
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Erika L. Sanchez

As the garden grows, they hope to be able to offer planting space to anyone who wants to grow their own food.

“We're trying to establish the culture in agriculture again,” said Delaney.

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