Getting Back to the Garden

Before he died from an overdose of heroin—laced, probably, with fentanyl —Otis Green was preparing to become the guardian of four chickens the way a mother might prepare for the birth of her first child.

The chickens were soon to arrive at the garden he tended in Englewood, one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods. He wanted them to settle in well. Maybe, he thought, he could spend a few nights sleeping alongside them, on the grass or the bench, while they adjusted to their surroundings.

Otis was not the first person to consider spending a night in the garden. When the greenhouse went up, a gleaming box of greenery tucked among the vacant lots, a few residents asked if they could move in. The suffocating temperatures and near-constant sunlight would be bearable, if they could have a home as nice as this. But Otis wasn’t driven there by need. For the first time in a while, he was living a good life.

The garden where Otis worked is a project of the Peace House, a clapboard building on the 6400 block of South Honore Street on Chicago’s South Side. The Peace House is essentially a community center, but to really understand its vision, you have to know something of what it means to grow up in Englewood. This is a neighborhood where shots are fired at baby showers and bodies arefound in trash cans. For most people here, violence is woven into the fabric of daily life.

Residents of Englewood, almost all of them black, endure constant reminders that the world doesn’t care much about them. They are stopped by the police around five times more frequently than in predominantly white districts, and incarcerated more than in almost all other areas. Houses stand empty and derelict. Children are literally being poisoned, with blood lead levels twice the city average.

Twenty minutes north, there are communities of white people in million-dollar houses. These are people who have no reason to distrust the police and think the residents of Englewood have no one to blame but themselves.

That was Robbin Carroll, once. A low-end jewelry wholesaler in Chicago for thirty-five years, she was, she admits, “everything that everyone envisions about a white person.” She’d never been to Chicago’s South Side, and thought that if people down there wanted to eat, they should just get a job.

Nonetheless, Robbin started visiting Englewood after attending a talk by Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee. When a man in the audience declared that he would give any amount of money to support her work, Gbowee refused. “We in Liberia have heard about your problems in Chicago,” she said. “You go find your own corner and fix it.”

And that is what Robbin set out to do.

When Robbin pulled up her Jeep one drowsy day in 2013, CeCe Dixon was cautious. She was hanging around with her group on the block, the men with their shirts off, everyone listening to loud music and smoking weed.

For CeCe, an Englewood native then in her early twenties, usually the only white people in her neighborhood were the police. She watched as Robbin laid out a table of Subway sandwiches and started shaking hands. “She asked us, was we ready to take our community back?” CeCe recalls. “We were like, yeah. So we hopped on board with Miss Robbin.”

Inevitably, Robbin has faced accusations of White Savior syndrome. She doesn’t back away from them. “I don’t want to live in a society that is doing what it’s doing, so therefore I’m saving myself by being here,” she says. “I firmly believe that an act of service is probably the most selfish act you can do.”

Robbin began with buying a house, a crumbling building that was due to be demolished. It had already been ransacked of its pipes and copper wiring. Later, she bought a vacant lot on the opposite side of the road, which the City of Chicago was selling for a dollar. She named it the Peace House. Then she Googled how to garden.Expand

Sophie Yeo

Before the Peace House came along, this was one of the most dangerous blocks in Chicago. Now, it’s a place where children play in the street and fresh produce is distributed to neighbors.

Today, the Peace House offers various services to the neighborhood, like yoga classes, meditation, and healing circles. It helps people navigate between solvency and destitution in a neighborhood in which the average annual income is just $13,000. It might be a bus fare for someone awaiting her first paycheck, or the use of a washing machine. Much of the work done by the Peace House comes down to small acts.

And then there’s the garden. Robbin doesn’t remember what species of flowers she planted, because it didn’t matter. “Before, this was just all dismal,” she says, gesturing at the riot of cabbage moths and melons beside us. “It really tells people that there is no life, and you aren’t valued. You’re dehumanized. So just by adding color, we were really clear: We’re alive, we’re here.”

The notion that even a tiny slice of Englewood’s violent crime could be addressed by a splash of paint and some Home Depot blooms may seem fanciful, but Robbin’s instinct is well supported. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has long championed the idea of “cleaning and greening” vacant lots throughout Philadelphia—an innovation recently analyzed in a controlled trial that measured the impact of removing trash, planting grass and trees, and installing fences.

Residents of Philadelphia who lived near the “greened” vacant lots reportedfeeling safer and spent more time outside than those in other neighborhoods. But it was more than a change in perception: Police reports show that crime in these areas actually fell by around 9 percent. The effect was more pronounced in areas below the poverty line, and particularly when applied to gun crime, which dropped by 29 percent. Given that around 2,000 people are shot in Chicago each year, that adds up. Nature really can save lives.

“The nature of crime is highly impacted by certain characteristics of the environment,” says Sara Hadavi, a landscape architect at the University of Illinois, who is studying the impacts of greening vacant lots in Chicago, including in Englewood. Socioeconomic factors, of course, play a role: You can’t confront crime in Chicago without facing up to the city’s racial segregation, mass incarceration of vulnerable communities, and chronic under-resourcing of certain neighborhoods

Greening cities doesn’t end the need for systemic change, but it does show the power of local action that is readily attainable. Covering a vacant lot in grass costs only about $5 per square meter, and does not displace local residents through gentrification. It removes hiding places for guns and sheltered spots for injecting drugs.

The benefits aren’t measured only in dollars and disincentives. The impacts of urban green space, per various studies, include higher levels of happiness, fewer mental disorders, greater trust in strangers, reduced chronic disease, and lower Medicare costs. Flowers, grass, color: These are the threads that can stitch together a community. The more input a community has into designing these spaces, the stronger the fabric that forms.

“If we go round, especially in summertime, we see barbecues and kiddie pools and picnic tables,” says Michelle Kondo, a researcher at the U.S. Forest Service, who was involved in the Philadelphia greening study. “We also saw that people reported significantly less feelings of depression and worthlessness after the intervention.”

Starting a garden in Englewood wasn’t easy.There were problems with the contaminated soil and a lack of know-how. And so, two years in, the Peace House hired its first master gardener.

Ken Holmes knew a lot about horticulture. After losing his parents as a child, he moved in with his Alabaman grandmother, who taught him how to tend her garden. At the same time, he developed into a frantic writer, producing reams of poetry and an autobiographical novel, describing the struggles of growing up in poverty. On the strength of his writing, he was offered scholarships by Harvard and Yale to study journalism.

By this time, however, Ken had learned the finer arts of another type of horticulture, one that involved water tanks in the basement and keeping secrets from his grandmother. And no Ivy League university could compete with the money he was making growing and selling marijuana. So, when the letters came, he didn’t reply.

“I graduated from high school and I kept seeing money, and I was like, Hey, why should I do this?” Ken says. Then, one day, he got robbed. He planned to restart his business from scratch, but then his son was born. That forced a course correction: “Here comes a life into the world, and I didn’t want him to see that this was the way to go.”

That was around twelve years ago. Ken got involved in Growing Home, an Englewood organization that teaches residents how to farm, before being hired at the Peace House, turning its garden into a fully functioning landscape of strawberries, watermelons, and leafy greens. His plants grew and his past receded. He no longer needed to look over his shoulder for police or rival dealers.Expand

When Robbin Carroll first arrived in the Englewood neighborhood, many of the local children didn’t know what a strawberry was. Today, they pick them off the plant as they grow.

“I ain’t got to do that no more,” he says, sitting on a painted bench in the garden, on his day off from the kitchen of the crusise ship Mystic Blue. “I can go to work, I can punch a clock, just live life. Everyday life.”

But gardens can’t cure all ills, especially in a place like Englewood, where trauma runs deep. CeCe, who has been involved with the Peace House since Robbin turned up with her sub sandwiches, has a lively toddler named Harmony, but still struggles with depression.

“It’s kind of like with Otis, right,” she says. “He overdosed. The Peace House gave him something to do for a couple of hours, but when the Peace House closed, when you say goodbye, he still got to deal with them problems. We still got to fight those demons and everything.”

Otis Green was not some down-and-out person redeemed by working the earth. Until recently, he had been earning thousands of dollars a month as a groundskeeper for the Chicago Bears. But a string of losses, including the death of his mother, led to depression, separation from his wife, and drug addiction. Ultimately, he lost his job, and that’s how he ended up at the Peace House.

Otis started out with taking bus passes in exchange for volunteering in the garden, and this eventually turned into a job. As his confidence returned, he planned to set up his own landscaping company, and talked to Robbin about how to purchase properties. He talked about going to rehab.

He also became friends with Meg Musschoot, a florist with a boutique flower shop on Chicago’s North Side. At that time, she was dividing her time between arranging camellias and hand-poured candles into romantic shelf displays and volunteering at the Peace House. The two had grown close, sharing the details of their lives as they tended the garden.

After a day of weeding and watering, Meg drove Otis to spend a gift card that he had gotten as a prize from the Peace House. Otis went into one gas station, then another, and another. He gave up. Then Meg—who is white, and therefore was not someone gas station attendants would suspect of stealing an American Express gift card—tried. No questions asked.

Otis blew it off, happy to have redeemed his prize. Later on, he left Meg a voicemail: “I’m just calling to check in on you, to let you know I’m thinking about you. I greatly appreciate everything. Just to let you know everything is OK. This is Otis, from Peace House.”

Then Otis died on his doorstep, while taking out the trash.

When Meg got the call, she didn’t believe it. She drove to his house to see for herself.

Humans do not break free from the past like a chick emerges from its egg, spring-like and clean. At Otis’s house that morning, Meg discovered the binds tying her friend to his past, even as he was transforming the story he told about himself. His house was filthy. There was a man sleeping on the floor and four children running around in dirty clothes.

“It’s not like I look at it as if he’s telling me a lie. It’s that he wanted me to see him in a certain light. [But] I already had formed my opinion. I loved him,” says Meg. She’s sitting on the porch of an abandoned house, next to the garden, her face freckled and her denim dungarees fraying above the knee. Her voice quivers.

“I did feel like Otis was changing,” she says. “He stood up taller, he came in with fresh, crisp clothes. He’d have his hair cut and his flat brim on, and just looking like he was proud of everything. He could set that dirty room aside. That’s one of the best things about this place: You don’t have to look at every ugly thing when there are all these beautiful things.”

One day while I am visiting the Peace House,I meet a local resident named J Woods. J moved to Englewood from Florida and initially tried selling drugs, but was sent to the Peace House by local dealers after he turned out to be a lousy salesperson. He now teaches yoga and spikeball to kids.

But the garden is also about helping people to deal with death, applying balm to the pain of these passings. “The kid that got shot five times in the head, we used it immediately for that,” Robbin says, matter of factly. There is no avoiding that, even with the Peace House, violent deaths remain frequent.

With no family to speak of, the ceremony that the Peace House community held in the garden was the closest thing that Otis had to a proper funeral. His friends gathered around the medicine wheel tucked at the back of the garden, picked lavender, and each said what they had learned from Otis.

In Englewood, caring for something is a dangerous pursuit. This garden was once a patch of glass and concrete. A hiding space. Today, it has vegetables, color, and four chickens. The chickens are called Ida B. Wells, Assata Shakur, Nina Simone, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

It has butterflies. As I part ways with Meg, one lands on her, settling between her eyes. Maybe, she says, it is Otis.