PULLMAN — My neighbor Liz Nerat is a second-generation hippie from West Rogers Park.
Her mother is a retired hippie college history professor. Her father, well, he's just a hippie, hippie.
And Nerat takes after both of them.
Part activist, part punk rocker, she's a vegetarian, urban gardening enthusiast and guitar player in Fuzzy Bunnies of Death — a metal thrash band with a sense of humor. (My favorite FBOD song, Elephants Have All The Fun, has a particularly catchy chorus, "I don't wanna be a peanut. I just wanna get outta this shell.")
The former cab driver union organizer moved to Pullman with a few friends, and with a handful of volunteers founded a new community garden on a former toxic waste site at 114th and Langley.
They call it the Cooperation Operation, and it's dedicated to the proposition that all people should have equal access to healthy food.
And they settled on Pullman because for years the neighborhood has been smack in the center of a food desert, not a grocery store for miles.
Plus, Pullman is like kind of like Cheers, if you stay long enough, everyone knows your name.
"Pullman people actually know each other," Nerat said. "They do things with each other and get to know each other on a level I haven't encountered in a lot of other places."
Indeed, Pullman is packed with volunteers who have long aspired to live up to the lofty motto on the masthead of the community newsletter, the Pullman Flyer, "Neighbors Sharing Are Neighbors Caring."
There's the Pullman Garden Club, which tends to Pullman's public gardens and organizes summer garden walk.
The Historic Pullman Foundation runs the history museum and leads neighborhood walking tours for out-of-towners and school field trips.
The Pullman Civic Organization teams with the Historic Pullman Foundation to run the house tour every fall.
Other volunteer groups cater to school kids and seniors. And there's another a band of volunteer urban gardeners who tend to private beds on the factory site.
Collectively, that's the stuff that's kept Pullman together.
Nerat and the Cooperation Operation fit right in.
This fall, the new public garden had its first harvest — everything from corn and greens to kale and peppers to savory spices for soups and spinach. There was also a bumper crop of organic heirloom tomatoes grown in raised garden beds made from the busted hulls of old powerboats.
"We had volunteer days and people could come and work and take what they need. It's the honor system," Nerat said. "And it provides public access to anyone who needs food. We never say no to anyone."
And in that way, the Coop-Op isn't just a Pullman community group.
They've partnered with volunteer groups in Roseland — a tough neighborhood struggling with poverty and gang violence — to provide their organic harvest to hungry families on the other side of the Metra tracks.
In Chicago, a city of neighborhoods divided by invisible boundaries separating people by class, color and gang affiliation, it's a long-standing custom to avoid crossing those lines.
My pal Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick once said it best, "Chicago's a city of tribes, which is Chicagoese for stay the f--- out of mine."
Nerat and her pals at Cooperation Operation don't buy it — in a way that's more hopeful than naïve.
"To us it was never a question of going to Roseland. It's important to break those boundaries," Nerat said. "The more people work together the more chance we have to success. The way I see it if you're rich and your neighbor is poor that's not a successful society."
So in the holiday spirit, the Cooperation Operation plans to spread some good cheer on the other side of the tracks.
They've partnered with Beacon Light Ministries Bishop Jerome Powell Sr. — whose mission is to be a "helping hand in a community that's hopeless" — to collect winter clothes and toys that they'll give to needy families and children on Christmas Day.
And for supper, they'll serve hearty vegan and gluten-free dishes and soups made fresh from ingredients donated from grocery stores and through the food pantry.
It'll be a meal close to Nerat's heart.
"Feeding people things that are good for them is one of the best things I can do for them," she said. "The way I see it is the larger picture. I want everyone to start from the same point, have access to the same kind of foods and have everything open to everyone. It might not happen, but to work toward that, to create equality in some ways and give people access to what they need, that's very important thing to me."
And come spring, the Cooperation Operation gang plans to plant even more garden beds and sow even more goodwill with hope for a good harvest.