Sunday, October 4, 2009

About the Timuel D. Black Edible Arts Garden

Garden Dedication - Monday, October 5 from
5:00pm - 7:00pm at 5710 S. Woodlawn Avenue

The Timuel D. Black Edible Arts Garden represents a remarkable, creative collaboration between the groups at the University of Chicago’s 5710 S. Woodlawn Building (including the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and the LGBTQ Programming Office), the Civic Knowledge Project (CKP), and Prof. Timuel D. Black himself, the legendary civil rights activist, educator, and oral historian of Chicago’s South Side. It is an original and innovative project that has no parallel anywhere else on the University’s campus, and it is an important first step that demonstrates how amazing things can be done even in small spaces.

The idea for the garden initially grew out of various Civic Knowledge Project workshops and collaborations, particularly the community-based Sustainable Savings workshops, which led to important, productive discussions with the University’s Director of Sustainability and University Planner about the possibilities for converting various University spaces to edible plants gardens. The hope was to demonstrate both how small, less than promising areas could be used for significant local and organic food production (through e.g. container and vertical gardening), and how this could be done in a way that was aesthetically and artistically significant, connecting with a larger movement led by environmental artists to create “edible estates” in place of lawns and other urban spaces. But the idea was also to make this a new, highly interdisciplinary form of gardening, something that would carry significance for many different people (both on and off campus) with a wide range of interests and backgrounds. The history of urban gardening is replete with new approaches, from Victory Gardens to community gardens to native plants gardens, and this project was meant to be another original approach—a garden so invested with artistic, historical, and philosophical meaning that it would speak not only to people interested in environmental science or urban agriculture, but also to artists, philosophers, historians, and interested citizens. The name “Edible Arts” is meant to indicate just how unusual this garden is.

Happily, the students at 5710 proposed that the garden be dedicated to Prof. Timuel D. Black, the author of the wonderful multivolume work Bridges of Memory. This was a singularly good idea, from the CKP’s perspective, since Prof. Black has long been a most valued partner in various CKP activities concerning the history of the South Side and Bronzeville. When Prof. Black visited the garden during the early phases of its construction, he was full of enthusiasm and ideas for investing it with a larger meaning, making it a dynamic form of tribute that would inspire hope, valorize education, teach South Side history, and stimulate just those types of conversation that he has always treasured, talking with the elders.

The design of the garden, with its graceful ascending lines and design elements, its sculptural artistry, are meant to realize that vision. It is a small space in which a lot is happening, and virtually every little piece of the garden has an important story to tell. The circular stone planters were built with old paving stones from the streets of Chicago, including stones from late 19th or early 20th century Maxwell St. The stones carrying the dedication plaque are pieces of a famous local building from 1890—the historic Roundhouse just off of Washington Park, now the site of the latest expansion of the DuSable Museum of African American History. The tomato plant in the central circular planter is a special heirloom tomato cultivated in honor of the famous independent alderman of the 5th Ward and champion of social justice Leon M. Despres. The rivers of beautiful recycled local glass (on beds of LEED certified blue gravel) running through the garden, and the ascending wire sculptures, symbolize the first and second Great Migrations of African Americans to Chicago, and the “bridges of memory” that Prof. Black has sought for so long to build. The smaller sculptures on the ascending wires represent the work of local South Side artists, artists striving to impart the message of hope and optimism. And of course, among the artwork, one can find the University of Chicago Phoenix, an especially appropriate part of the vision of Prof. Black, who is himself a University Alum.

More artistic elements will continue to be added as the garden progresses, both as an experiment in sustainable urban agriculture and as a dynamic work that changes the flow of human interaction at 5710, encouraging people to stop, talk, remember, and tell their stories. The students at 5710 look forward to donating their fall harvest to a local food pantry; an edible arts garden gives city residents the opportunity to eat fresh food and, for the children, a chance to see where their food comes from. Also, the rain barrels for gray water harvesting and the composter will be decorated with mosaics by local schoolchildren working under the direction of the CKP and a South Side artist to help realize Prof. Black’s vision for this space. New plantings and arrangements will insure that the garden remains beautiful and meaningful throughout the year, even during the coldest months. As a dialogical space, the garden has only just begun. The hope, shared by all those responsible for it, is to make it a focal point for building the community connections and civic friendship that will indeed make it a fitting tribute to our great South Side historian Timuel D. Black, whose legacy of activism on behalf of social justice needs to be carried on through the generations.