After a year working to secure its garden space, the Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm (2501 N. Sawyer Ave.) is packing up. On Saturday, April 17 — the first workday of the season — property owner Al Jakich told the team members he couldn’t give them any more time to fundraise. He is moving forward on offers from developers and permitting volunteers one week to clear everything off the lot.
Because Corner Farm had a big turnout for the season kickoff, the group was able to dismantle most of the garden within the day, said Jill Johnson, a team member and unofficial coordinator at the farm. Next Saturday, they’ll move everything they need into a U-Haul so Jakich can put up a fence. The team plans to store its materials while searching for a new space in the neighborhood.
Efforts to Save the Space
Corner Farm’s efforts to secure the garden lot began last March, when Jakich let the team know he was getting ready to sell his property and move somewhere warm. The gardeners weren’t surprised; throughout the past 13 years of operation, Jakich frequently reminded them that the space was temporary. However, volunteers weren’t quite ready to leave their corner.
The team reached out to NeighborSpace, a Chicago land trust that handles the property ownership of community gardens. NeighborSpace put together an offer and presented it to Jakich and his accountant this March. The proposal relied on a rewarding land conservation tax credit to secure a partial donation. Jakich’s accountant said the offer wasn’t right for the property owner’s goals.
“We respect that, but it was really disappointing and we were feeling really confident in that offer,” said Johnson. “And that was when Al told us that he had these much larger offers on the table and that he could give us a month to match them.”
The team began searching for local philanthropists and raising money to buy the lot through a GoFundMe campaign. The group made clear to donors that the funds would go toward relocation expenses if buying wasn’t ultimately feasible.
Undoubtedly, the garden will continue leaving an impact no matter where it grows.
Throughout more than a decade of operations on Altgeld and Sawyer, the Corner Farm has lived up to its founders’ goals. As Johnson’s heard it told, the idea for the space was conceived by a group of friends looking to combine their intersecting interests: art, creativity, public service, cultivating community and, yes, gardening.
“They thought it would be really amazing to have a space that was open and free for all, where all these intersecting interests could be explored, expanded upon. And they realized a garden would be an amazing way to do that. Because it’s open air, it’s open to the whole community. And working together side by side brings people together so much.”— Johnson
Operations at the Corner Farm have been totally horizontal. Johnson has been a de facto coordinator for the past few years but has no official title. Everyone has had an equal say in the garden, even if they just began volunteering. Tasks were divided by skill and interest, and the team reached out to community members for help on special projects.
The garden has also been a frequent arts programming host and maintained local partnerships, including with Christopher House scool’s Logan Square campus (3255 W. Altgeld St.). In the past, the farm provided produce for the Christopher House food pantry and collaborated with the school on summer programming.
Johnson described the wonder that children bring to the garden: “There’s nothing like watching a preschooler pull a radish or a carrot out of the ground for the first time,” she said. The joy is infectious, Johnson said. Once, she said, a group of kids was so delighted to be pulling radishes that a volunteer followed behind and reburied the the vegetables for a second harvest.
Making a Permanent Home
It’s unclear if the garden will get a harvest this year. That will depend on how long it takes to find a new space. Johnson said that seeds might go to other gardens if necessary. When the group does find a new home, the members want permanence this time, she said.
Over the years, the Corner Farm team has dreamt up plenty of amazing project ideas, but its ability to invest in the space was hampered because the members didn’t own the space. Now, the Corner Farm is working to secure a place where it can truly lay roots.
“We’ve talked for years about putting in a wheelchair-accessible patio and pathways,” Johnson said. “Or getting water spigots, like water hookup on our land. That’s tens of thousands of dollars conceivably … we’ve wanted to plant fruit trees. But again, those take years to mature and give fruit. We can’t do that in a temporary space … we really want permanence this time around.”
No matter where the Corner Farm ends up, it’s value to the community will continue to be immeasurable.
Featured photo: Corner Farm