UPTOWN — It was the final day of school before summer vacation and Kim Nguyen was on a bus headed toward the lakefront with classmates from Northside College Prep. One student suggested hopping off at North Broadway in Uptown and walking to the beach.
Another companion balked. "Uptown is dangerous," Nguyen remembers hearing.
"Sometimes people don't want to come to Uptown because they're worried about the violence," explained Nguyen.
But, says Nguyen, an Uptown resident: "Even if there's violence and drugs around, we can all come together."
Nguyen, 16, is one of the Chicago Public Schools students who spent a chunk of their summer transforming a vacant lot at 4919 N. Winthrop Ave. into a "theater garden," where community members can plant flowers, fruits and vegetables but also enjoy arts programming and attend community events.
On Saturday, the Uptown community is invited to reap the benefits of those efforts by attending the Welcoming the Moon Harvest Festival at the theater garden for three hours of fun that includes theater games, an African dance lesson, face painting and more.
The theater garden initiative sprouted from a partnership between the Green Scene gardening, arts education program After School Matters, and the office of Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), whose ward includes part of Uptown.
Green Scene founder Martie Sanders instructed the kids who designed and built the theater garden, which has open space near the front of the lot for small arts performances.
Sanders said the project "was aimed at bringing community members together."
In the summer, students were sent to various community organizations to offer them a plot in the garden to grow whatever they liked, and neighbors in the area also have space to plant.
"We're also bringing diverse artists onto the site," Sanders added. "And hopefully the community members bring their talent, too."
The idea for the garden, according to Osterman, stemmed in part from safety discussions between his office and neighbors around the empty lot. The idea was to turn the lot into a more positive part of the community and give area kids something positive to do during the summer in Uptown, where at least 17 people have been shot since June.
Daryleah Willis, 9, said he "learned how to plant seeds and how not to destroy them." He was one of many William C. Goudy Elementary School students who participated in the program this summer.
"I like that we actually got to grow stuff and have fun," said 11-year-old Darryl Young, another student at Goudy, 5120 N. Winthrop Ave.
But Northside Prep student Kim Nguyen said the project was about more than planting or keeping kids out of trouble.
"It's taking something that no one would look twice at and making something you love," she said. "We've been needing something to bring this community together."