The possibility of Oak Park residents joining neighbors in Austin to spread the community garden concept is one of the ideas which surfaced at the Community of Congregations meeting Jan. 30 and, apparently, it is getting legs.  The concept seemed to be a win/win proposition.  Many Oak Parkers want to garden on a bigger scale but have no land.  Austin has open land and vacant lots. Connecting residents on both sides of Austin Boulevard would create stronger ties between the communities.

“There are a lot of people in Oak Park who are genuinely committed to making a difference in Austin,” said Seamus Ford who lives in Austin and co-founded Root Riot, an organization which manages two community gardens on the West Side of Chicago. “There are countless opportunities to make a difference.  What has been missing up till now are the kinds of connections to allow people to do that.”

Several opportunities to connect are being made available.  One is the screening of the film, Urban Roots on March 9 at 3 p.m. at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Austin.  It’s one of over 20 films being featured in The Green Community Connections’ 3rd annual One Earth Film Festival, Mar. 7-9.

Urban Roots,” said Mary Erkins who is promoting the film for the Green Community Connections festival, “depicts Detroit’s fall after the auto industry’s decline and what they did and are doing about it: community gardens.   The film not only gives the ‘how-to’s’ in developing the gardens, but it features many wonderful interviews with the people who actually did the work and developed them.”

A second way to connect is through Root Riot.  “The goal of our organization,” Ford said, “is to promote community gardens and also to foster community in places where it has been missing.  We manage two gardens, Harambee in Austin and Kuumba Tre Ahm in Garfield Park.  Many of the people who participate in Harambee are already from Oak Park.”

“I would say that the gardens are run democratically,” he said.  “Participants rent raised beds, and I serve as the manager, because someone needs to be the central person for getting people signed up and managing the garden.  Outside of that we have work days throughout the season when people come together to work on different projects.  We have peer-to-peer led classes through the summer in which people share knowledge and ideas with each other.  We also have many students who participate with us through the season, and I am the primary person who works with them.”

A third opportunity for getting involved is through Julie Samuels, an Oak Park resident who worked for the nonprofit Open Lands as a neighborhood organizer from 1994 until just recently.  Samuels explained that Open Lands helps Chicago residents think of the 70,000 vacant lots in the city as a resource and to transform them from eyesores into among other things community gardens.  Part of her work was to facilitate the formation of a community organization called the Austin Green Team which still exists.

“I’ve been talking to people in Austin,” she said, “and they are very interested.  I intend to hold a meeting with residents of Austin and people who live in Oak Park to come together to decide how to do this.  My initial response to the concept was I’m not going to tell people from Oak Park to go into Austin like carpetbaggers and take over vacant land.”

She is adamant that the people already living in the neighborhood be the primary decision makers.  “A community garden,” she said, “should be community based and owned by the people in the neighborhood.  If people from outside the neighborhood want to come and there is enough room, OK.”

For information on the movie Urban Roots contact Mary Erkins at or go to; for Root Riot talk to Seamus Ford at or 312-213-7824 or; for getting involved with Julie Samuels in the creation of a grassroots project call 708-383-7711.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...