On October 7, 2015, I joined an end-of-summer community dinner hosted by a local environmental justice organization, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). I was pleasantly surprised that it was more than just a potluck event where neighbors get together and share their favorite dish. In 2008, the garden where the dinner was held was an abandoned toxic dump site. Now, the brownfield site has been turned into a flourishing community garden where neighborhood residents, mostly Latino, plant their favorite vegetables in community plots. Children play in the small playground while residents celebrate the true meaning of community with a meal made from their own home-grown crops.
In 2008, this land was a mess; chemicals from underground storage tankers had polluted the ground. After removing contaminated soil, contractors replaced it with gravel and soil suitable for a garden. Now, neighboring residents enjoy organic fresh produce and their children play in the garden (Garcia, A Garden Grows in Little Village: Chicago Sun Times, August 2014).
LVEJO takes pride in being organic, using fertilizers derived from a worm composting system. Fermin Meza, LVEJO Urban Agriculture Organizer, works part-time for LVEJO overseeing the community garden even as he works full-time in construction by day. He also grew up in the Mexican countryside.
Residents say the gardens are a great place to unwind and celebrate. That evening, two families brought cakes to celebrate their children’s birthdays. LVEJO Organizers Vivian and Karen Canales made the best soup (caldo) and LVEJO Senior Organizer Kim Wasserman grilled sausages and hotdogs.
Little Village is a present-day gateway for Mexican immigrants, popular for its authentic Mexican restaurants and stores. Yet it is similar to other low-income communities afflicted by gang violence, low education levels and poor social services. However, the communal garden represents the community at its best. “It is a resilient neighborhood,” Antonio Lopez, Executive Director, said, “One that is doing a lot with little means.”
I cannot help but connect this wonderful resource with the long-term work that the Bayanihan Foundation has done in planting mangrove trees, promoting youth leadership development and supporting the fisher folk community in Liloan, Cebu Philippines. In July 2015, I also joined a community dinner there with the participants of Kaluluwa Kolectivo and the NEXTGEN Fellows. That evening, I also experienced the meaning of community.
Can you replicate the true spirit of community and giving across the seas? Yes. The key ingredient is to support community residents dedicated to the common good, ready to build the community from the ground up. That evening in Chicago was the last warm summer night of the season. Next year, the residents of Chicago’s Little Village will again be back reinvigorating that former toxic site turned community garden into a plot of land full of life, love and community.