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At Long Last, Community Garden Takes Shape

  Construction started this week on a Jefferson Park garden, two years after planning began.
An Eyesore No Longer, Construction Starts on Garden
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JEFFERSON PARK — For nearly a year, Rene Benson was told next week.

Next week, she was told every week for 60 weeks, city workers would start digging up contaminated soil on a small triangular piece of vacant land near Central, Edmunds and Higgins avenues in Jefferson Park, where she and a group of other residents had been working to build a community garden.

This week it is was finally, actually next week— and construction began on the St. Robert Bellarmine Spirit Community Garden with help from Ald. John Arena (45th).

"We've been waiting for a very long time," Benson said. "We had no clue work would begin this week, and we are so excited."

The plot of land, which has been owned by the city for 12 years, was once home to a gas station and several other businesses. It has been vacant for years and with no plans to redevelop it, was a perfect fit for a community garden, Arena said.

Arena's office is using $108,000 from collected from developers who built on what was once open land. In order to offset the loss of green space, the companies were charged a fee and that money is used to preserve other vacant land, the alderman said.

"This awkward little triangle was really an eyesore," Arena said. "This is a perfect public-private partnership that will benefit the community."

There isn't enough money available to completely clean up the site, but enough will be done to make it usable as a garden, Arena said.

Workers are digging a 3-foot-deep by 5-foot-wide trench around the perimeter of the property, which will be replaced by fresh soil where non-edible plants will grow, Arena said.

On the rest of the property, workers will remove the remaining asphalt and trees in addition to removing a foot of the soil and dirt that may be contaminated, Arena said.

A barrier of crushed rock and sand will replace the soil removed from the center of the garden, and block any chemicals from leeching into the new soil. Raised beds will be used to plant fruits, vegetables and other yummy greens, Arena said.

There was not enough money in the open lands fund—which is now exhausted—to completely remediate the site, Arena said.

"It's a great solution," Arena said.

Planning for the garden began with a notice in the St. Robert Bellarmine parish bulletin, and soon a group was meeting regularly to draw up plans for the garden and to brainstorm fundraising ideas.

The group enlisted the help of Neighbor Space, a nonprofit land trust. That group, which provides long-term protection for more than 80 vegetable, flower and prairie gardens across Chicago, will hold the deed to the land once the city finishes the clean up work, Benson said.

"We really want to include everyone," Benson said, adding that the raised flower beds will allow gardeners of all ages to get their hands dirty. "It is a beautification project, too."

In an effort to make the garden a true community effort, there will be no individual plots, Benson said.

Benson, who has lived in Jefferson Park for 30 years, said the garden will need volunteers — especially those with expertise in construction — to build the garden beds. Donations of materials are also welcome.

Garden supporters can also purchase a commemorative brick. For more information, go to the garden's Facebook page.