EAST GARFIELD PARK — When Tony Collins saw a group of nuns and volunteers take over the vacant lot adjacent to his home last year, he grabbed his tools to help.
But the 39-year-old wasn't very skilled with a rake, so instead he grabbed his paint and created a mural to accompany the community garden in the 2900 block of West Adams Street. He hoped the art paired with the community garden would brighten up his block, which is lined with poorly boarded-up homes and family homes — and keep drug dealers away.
"They like to dwell in the dark," said Collins, who's been a graffiti artist since he was 16. The garden "makes more of a statement. ... It let's you know 'Don't throw garbage here because it would ruin it.' And it's self serving. I don't have to sit out here with a bullhorn."
Marillac Social Center bought the vacant lot for $1 through the city's Large Lot Program and named it Gwen's Garden after the center's late Director of Project Hope Gwen Horton, said Whitney Allen, director of family services at the center.
The program started in March 2014 in Englewood, then expanded to East Garfield Park and later Austin. Its goal is to return vacant lots to the property tax rolls.
"It used to be an old dilapidated lot, but now some of the kids come out and play. It's kind of nice," Allen said.
Last summer, the center used a grant to buy the materials and planted a bunch of different vegetables, but still is having trouble getting members of the community to come out, she said.
"It takes time to build the engagement," Allen said.
Collins said he'd like to see more members of the community relaxing in the garden or learning to garden, and is even brainstorming ways to host a movie night. A good start would be just stopping by to enjoy a fresh tomato grown in the garden, he said.
"Last year, it grew so much food and some of it went to waste. My family grabbed some and made fried green tomatoes," Collins said, grasping the dill his family used earlier in the week to make dill rice. "There's only so much food my family can eat."
Before Collins moved in, the home was his grandmother's and she cherished the block and neighborhood. She was "diehard" about not leaving the block or the home, but when she did she told Collins to live in the house because he was respected around the neighborhood and took pride in it, he said.
When Collins first saw the nuns trekking through alleys and other vacant properties opposed to walking along the sidewalks to the garden he thought, "these nuns are bada--." He said their dedication showed him they were also committed to change in the neighborhood, now strewn with vacant lots and boarded-up homes.
"It's flowers. It's beauty. It's growth. It's potential. I'd rather see zucchinis growing than tumbleweed," said Collins, 39, a socio-political artist.
In February 2014, Collins created an art exhibit at Lacuna Lofts, at 2150 S. Canalport Ave., about King Louie, a South Side rapper who blew up locally during the Drill Music emergence, a sub genre of Hip Hop popularized in the city. King Louie was in attendance, he said.
Despite some negative opinions of hip-hop music, Collins wanted his art to speak to young people, particularly King Louie's audience of young black people who Collins said aren't typically part of organized efforts to improve the community.
"Growing up, I joined every organization," Collins said one recent weekday, taking a small break between his Ramadan prayers. "But I'm not going to protest anymore. What I can do is paint a beautiful mural and maybe that guy sagging his pants realizes 'I'm no different than anyone else out here.'"
Collins said he refuses to end up like the many artists who have grown up on the West Side, achieved success and then forgotten about the old neighborhood.
He's planning to paint more murals around the West Side to promote his art and the neighborhood so that "As my name goes up, my hood goes up," he said.
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