BRONZEVILLE — If you don't build it, will they still come?
Bernard Loyd, founder of Bronzeville's Urban Juncture, intends to find out either way.
After five years of sponsoring the Bronzeville Community Garden at 51st Street and Calumet Avenue, Loyd is now almost ready to launch the Bronzeville Cookin' venture of restaurants and food stores across the street and on the other side of the CTA Green Line station at 51st Street.
"Food brings people together," Loyd said this week. And the need for it is clear in Bronzeville, which has been called a food desert in some areas, with only fast-food outlets as oases.
"There's lots of food in this community, but mostly it's junk," Loyd said.
So providing good, healthy food has been the aim of the community garden, to the point where a sign on a wall along a vacant lot on the Bronzeville-Washington Park border asks: "Do you want a community center without walls?"
And to judge by the response, the answer is "yes."
Latrice Williams, who has served as manager of the garden since its inception five years ago, said there are about 50 "garden regulars" who meet to tend the plants or just play chess or dominoes on an almost daily basis.
"I've seen members of the garden community out here 300 days a year," Loyd said.
The garden was originally intended to provide an intersection point for a community Loyd describes as "highly segmented economically." From the corner of 51st and Prairie Avenue, just down the street, he pointed to a relatively new condo, an older rental six-flat, an equally old high-rise offering low-income housing and a senior center just down the street.
According to Loyd, those disparate segments of the community rarely have occasion to interact, especially in a rough neighborhood he said is a "challenge" sometimes to police.
"That's the objective — bring the community together," Loyd said.
And having tried to draw them to "a community center without walls," he's finally ready to see if they'll come as well to a food center if he builds it.
The Bronzeville Cookin' project, part of the $9 million redevelopment program Loyd is spearheading through the development company Urban Juncture, will add a breakfast diner at the CTA stop, a Jerk Shack restaurant and a vegetarian restaurant, as well as a produce store that will sell vegetables grown at the new Bronzeville Rooftop Farm atop the building.
"We're finally getting close to launching," Loyd said. "The garden is great, but ... in a few weeks, we'll have our first income-producing venue."
It's been a long time coming — more than 20 years from when Loyd first returned to the community, saying, "I want to be part of the effort to bring back Bronzeville."
A West Side native who grew up on the South Side, Loyd resettled in Lincoln Park when he first returned to the city after completing his graduate degree. Yet he was drawn back to Bronzeville, moving to 43rd Street and King Drive in the mid-'90s and beginning his efforts to revive the area through food.
"Everybody agrees it's a great idea. Food is very important," Loyd said. "But getting it done is almost impossible. A lot of people talk about it, and very little happens."
Loyd began acting on it about 10 years ago with a plan to buy up property around the 51st Street CTA station, which itself served as a conduit to bring in others from surrounding neighborhoods. He was almost ready to move forward in 2007, but then the recession intruded.
"Wealth just evaporated in this community," Loyd said, and banks willing to back restaurants and food ventures in other neighborhoods rejected Bronzeville as a poor investment.
Loyd kept gathering property in the meantime, and launched the Bronzeville Community Garden on the vacant lot at 51st and Calumet in the summer of 2010 to gain a foothold in the area. He kept trying to put together funding, including a $3 million pledge from the city including Tax Increment Finance funds.
"The city has been our most important partner and our most challenging partner," Loyd said. It gave $1 million up front, but held back the extra $2 million for the end, leaving Loyd to find a funding "bridge" from start to finish.
That seems imminent, as Loyd prepares to open Jerk Shack and other elements of the project for at least a day on June 21 to give locals a taste of what's to come. Meanwhile, the new rooftop farm is growing, alongside newly installed solar energy panels and heating units (protected overnight by canine security with signs threatening "survivors will be prosecuted," even as Loyd looks into having an alarm system installed instead).
The community garden, the rooftop farm and restaurants should serve to bolster each other, with Loyd adding, "The shared interest is community development."
In addition to city support, Loyd said, they've also had the backing of 3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell and, before her, Dorothy Tillman, which shows just how long he's been trying to put it all together.
"I think there's great enthusiasm," Loyd said. "The frustration is, why does it take so long?"
Dowell was a little more standoffish about what is one of a few community gardens in her ward. "The garden is available open space in the community," she said this week, while acknowledging, "It has some challenges, because it's so open," requiring occasional oversight and police scrutiny.
Yet now Urban Juncture seems ready to move forward with a more concrete addition to the neighborhood with the Bronzeville Cookin' project, which will also include an incubator for local development in office space on the second floor of the building.
Urban Juncture also has worked on a bicycle project in the area (a Divvy station has been opened outside the CTA stop) and efforts to rehabilitate the Forum, a legendary performance space near the 43rd Street CTA stop. (Think Bronzeville's Uptown Theater.)
In the meantime, the community garden continues on, attracting residents to what remains the focal point of the area until the restaurants and produce store potentially challenge it for attention. Williams planned the garden so that salad greens and kale have come up so far this year, soon to be joined by other vegetables.
"We're constantly harvesting throughout the season," Williams said. "We share it among our garden regulars."
For Williams, who got drawn in as she walked her son past the garden almost five years ago and has never left, it's been a natural learning process. "I come from a family of gardeners," she said, "but I've learned on the ground."
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