November 23, 2015

The Impact of Place: Field Trips, Parks, and Farms

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

I recently took my Sociology of Urban America and Community Engagements classes to a field trip to Chicago. We visited the Englewood Growing Home Wood Street Farm and went on a 2-hour Toxic Tour of Little Village with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). As part of this outing, students learned about innovative approaches to community engagement and resident-led development, workforce development, and public-private partnerships. They also learned about the impact of environmental and structural racism on urban communities of color.

Our first stop on the tour was at the Growing Home Wood Street Farm, an organic-certified urban farm in the Englewood neighborhood. Located on the South East side of Chicago, Greater Englewood is a predominantly African American neighborhood, with a median income of $22,824  a 26.9% unemployment rate, and a 33.8% poverty rate. In addition, the neighborhood is home to a food desert. The Wood Street Farm provides two major resources to the community: organic, accessible, affordable fresh produce and workforce development programming in urban agriculture.   

Over the course of an hour, the farm’s outreach program coordinator and our tour guide, Kristin, took us through the grounds to view the hoop houses, and graciously answered the students’ numerous questions.

Honore Street Farm 2

Honore Street Farm, photo courtesy of the author

In 2014, 85% of the farm’s students completed the job training program, and of that, 79% earned jobs in a variety of food service industries. The job training program focuses on residents with either a criminal background or who are otherwise “unemployable.” As part of the training, students learn agricultural, money management, resume writing, and goal management skills.

Growing Home also works with a legal team to help students expunge their records. Students are paid for their labor and also receive guidance about how to find other jobs. The farm sells their produce on site at cost and accepts a variety of publicly funded food payment plans (SNAP, EBT, LINK, WIC). Furthermore, residents that use any of these payment options receive double benefits up to $20 (i.e. $20 worth of produce for $10). In addition to these resources, although Wood Street Farm is not a community garden, it provides residents and workers access to a clean, green space within a section of the neighborhood that is devoid of these spaces.

From there, we boarded the bus for Little Village. Located on the South West side of Chicago, Little Village (or La Villita, as it is commonly known), is home to a predominantly Mexican immigrant and Mexican American population. It was home to several industrial areas that have now closed and, up until recently, lacked access to green spaces.

We met our tour guides, Joanna, Mauricio, and Anahi at LVEJO’s 27th and Troy community garden and learned how the organization along with neighborhood residents repurposed the contaminated post-industrial brownfield site into a garden. Even though the site has been capped, in order to ensure that chemicals do not seep into the food grown, LVEJO and residents grow produce in raised beds using organic soil. Our tour guides provided a brief history of environmental pollutants in the neighborhood and took us through the community garden so that the students could interact with the chickens, bunnies, and a rooster. Unlike Growing Home, the LVEJO garden is a community space where residents grow and harvest their own produce. 

After about thirty minutes, we left the community garden and walked down an uneven, garbage-strewn gravel alleyway that once housed a rail-line. LVEJO organizers hope that this space will one-day become a 1.3 mile ground level rail-to-trails walkway that can connect residents from Little Village to the adjacent Pilsen neighborhood. 

Potential Rail to Trail Site

Potential rail to trail site, photo courtesy of the author

From there we ventured down Sacramento Street towards one of the largest prisons in the United States, the Cook County Department of Corrections (Jail). During this portion of the tour, our guides discussed both the location of the jail and the impact the structure has on the community.

Near Prison

Photo courtesy of the author

The jail sits on 96 acres of land and houses roughly 9,000 inmates. At the same time, the neighborhood suffers from a lack of green space in the area. The LVEJO tour guides also highlighted the connection that some non-Little Village Chicago residents make between the location of the jail and the community. Guides referenced comments like “the jail is in a good location, because Little Village is a poor neighborhood with high crime rates.”

Guides also talked about the location of the jail in relation to a new park, La Villita Park, which opened in July 2015. On the one hand, visitors and residents are able to partially view the west end of the jail from parts of the park. Designers did, however, use natural barriers (small hills and trees) to partially block ones view of the jail. On the other hand, the location of the park serves as both a buffer from fully viewing the jail, and an opportunity for residents to gain access to a large green space for outdoor activities and play. In addition, the creation of the park meant that the previous empty structure was torn down and the ground was cleaned.  

The park is built upon a superfund site and required extensive remediation due to its 70-year history as a place for industrial manufacturing; pollutants included asphalt, coal tar, and driveway sealer. Because the park is located on a contaminated site, certain facilities are unavailable; this includes an in-ground pool and a field house. This constrains many of the activities that can take place at the park, and also restricts full use of the park to the warmer months.

As we know from human ecology, people are affected by (and also affect) the social, natural, and built environments that surround them. We not only shape and are shaped by our interactions with other people (and by history), but also in our encounters with roads, parks, houses, buildings, lampposts, et cetera.

In the classic text, Bourgeois Utopia: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia, Robert Fishman highlights Frederick Law Olmsted’s (the architect behind New York City’s Central park) understanding of nature and parks as healing spaces that could buffer against the onslaught of urban ills.  Recent studies have highlighted the impact of green spaces and trees on resident health, well-being, and quality of life. For instance, one study demonstrated that residents who live near green areas experience less noise pollution, have decreased levels of stress, and are more likely to use outdoor spaces for recreation and play. Another study out of England, highlighted that access to green spaces can mitigate health inequities rooted in class and income. And yet another study indicates that green spaces also have a positive impact on childhood development their access to adults.   

As we finished our day of field trips and boarded the bus for our three and half hour drive back to Galesburg, students shared their excitement at residents’ and local nonprofits’ abilities to create beautiful, shared spaces on abandoned and contaminated sites.

How do different kinds of places influence you? How might parks serve as a remedy to social problems?

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