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Community Organizers on Vacant Lots, Buildings: 'Ugly Is An Opportunity'

By Casey Cora | October 2, 2013 7:39am
 "Activating" vacant lots into something useful will be the topic of a talk Saturday at Bridgeport's Benton House.
"Activating" vacant lots into something useful will be the topic of a talk Saturday at Bridgeport's Benton House.
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Facebook/Dan Pugh

BRIDGEPORT — The South Side's patchwork system of agriculture is hidden in plan sight.

Produce for Pleasant House Bakery's operation is grown on Morgan Street and outside a meatpacking facility-turned-indoor agricultural farm in Back of the Yards, not far from the Bubbly Dynamics building where Yojo Shaw helps raise bees to produce local honey.

Nearby, the group behind the McKinley Park Community Garden has transformed a weedy, trash-laden vacant lot along industrial Pershing Road into a lush, colorful garden.

Atop a shuttered Bridgeport funeral home, Christopher Jones grows vegetables for what he calls "Funeral Farms." About a mile away, volunteers at Benton House are working to turn land outside the century-old settlement house into a "backyard botany" area.

All of the projects have transformed unused space into something functional, which is the topic of Saturday's "Ugly is an Opportunity" talk at the Benton House Ramova Room, 3034 S. Gratten Ave. The free event begins at 11:30 a.m. and is expected to run for about two hours.

The forum was organized by Dan Pugh, co-founder of the Bridgeport Citizens Group, a grassroots residents organization largely focused on crime prevention. Part of its efforts is a focus on shoring up the area's vacant buildings, which Pugh said tend to draw gang activity and other trouble. 

That led to conversations with neighbors about community gardening, and where Pugh didn't have the know-how to do actually start a garden, "I realized I did have the ability to organize a group of people to come together and at least start the conversation," he said.

It's a formula that often acts as a catalyst for change, says Katherine Darnstadt, founder of the Latent Design architecture and urban planning firm that emphasizes the concept of "placemaking," a concept that takes otherwise ordinary spaces and "activates" them with welcoming touches and public art based on community feedback.

More often than not, Pugh and Darnstadt say, placemaking can happen on a shoestring budget.

"We don’t have to go bankrupt trying to get a project up and running ... a lot of this [type of project] could happen next week," Pugh said.

The speakers at Saturday's talk include Darnstadt, Morgan Kalberloh of Pleasant Farms, organizers of the McKinley Park Community Garden, Yojo Shaw with Angry Hand Apiary, Jones of Funeral Farms and Benton House's Meghan McDonald.

Each speaker will talk about for about 15 minutes about how they've turned empty spaces into something useful.

After the speakers conclude, guests and presenters can connect over jalapeno jelly made from peppers grown atop the funeral homes, homemade cornbread, treats from Pleasant House Bakery and Shaw's Bridgeport honey.

"And I have to say the stuff is amazing. It's coming right out of the neighborhood," Pugh said.