A Bourgeoning Community Garden In North Champaign

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…garden programs serve to further a vision of
what should be in times when society is unclear about
where the future is heading.
—Laura J. Lawson, City Bountiful, A Century of
Community Gardening in America (2005)
As chronicled in City Bountiful, at least since 1890’s,
socially and politically constructed community gardening
has been employed to ameliorate the effects of wars, economic
depressions, and social unrest. As stop-gap measures,
most of these projects disappear when the immediate
crisis seems to be over. Today’s skyrocketing cost of
energy and food makes the idea of growing a portion of
one’s food appealing again, even in the Midwest with its
short planting and harvesting seasons. Another related
impulse for urban gardening seems to be a sense of helplessness
that most of us feel when it comes to big corporations
and governments deciding what we can and should
consume for the profit of a few. Similar to 1970’s and
1980’s waves of turning vacant lots into urban gardens,
community gardeners of today hope that their efforts
would create permanent open spaces to bring neighborhoods
together and give them a sense of empowerment
and well-being. Such pragmatic and idealistic goals coalesce
in a 2-acre plot of land in north Champaign—Randolph
Street Community Garden.
On any fair day, at the corner of Randolph Street and
Beardsley Avenue, there’s a good chance that you will see a
group of youngsters, several senior citizens, and a couple
of families working on small patches of vegetable and
flower gardens. There’s also a good chance that a smiling
Dawn Blackman would welcome you to take a look
around and help her with spreading mulch on a newlyraised
garden bed. A busy Charles Doty would tell you
about hundreds of heirloom seeds which he has been
nursing carefully in his Washington Square apartment.
This peaceful space provides those who live or work in the
neighborhood with the opportunity to share the joys and
toils of gardening together.
The origin of Randolph Street Community Garden
goes back to spring of 2004 when Master Gardeners of
the University of Illinois Extension Service initiated a
community gardening project north of the newly built
Stratton School. The Master Gardeners invited the
neighborhood residents to partake of this initiative and
allocated patches of garden beds to interested individuals.
Dawn Blackman of the Motherlands Culture Club
seized upon this opportunity to connect the children in
her program directly to agriculture. The children experience
the feasibility of growing food in an urban setting,
learn how to grow and harvest a variety of nutritious and
culturally diverse edibles, and try to improvise various
recipes using the available fresh and organic ingredients.
Here, you can see the food and environmental justice
movement in action—no textbook or lecturing required.
In 2006, the original gardeners left their plots unattended
due to draught, and the Master Gardeners’ program
too had to end its initiative. Blackman, however,
continued her gardening and, in time, the Champaign
School District offered to provide the garden with running
water. Charles Doty, an avid gardener without a garden,
drew some of the residents of Washington Square apartments
to the garden. As acknowledged by all, the interaction
between the older gardeners and the youngsters has
been most rewarding to both groups.
This spring, several volunteers from the Association
of Students of Landscape Architecture spent several
hours to prepare the garden for planting. Small monetary
and material donations by community members
and the persistent “treasure” hunting
by organizers yield small but
rewarding improvements to the garden—
one day a wheelbarrow, the
next day a birdbath. Blackman
would like to have a mini-market
once a week to sell the extra produce
and flower bouquets to defray some
of the cost of running the garden.
Several beds have been raised,
already. The organizers plan to build
a storage shed and a ramp for gardeners
in wheelchairs, install more
benches and picnic tables in the
shady areas, and turn the garden
into a pleasing open space for everyone
to enjoy.
As only less than one-half acre of
the two-acre land is currently being
utilized, the garden organizers invite
individuals and families to join in. Indeed, a critical mass
of committed gardeners needs to be reached before this garden becomes an integral and sustainable
part of North Champaign. In my opinion,
the most beneficial way to reach this goal is
to develop a partnership between the garden
and the area schools. Many individuals
are skeptical and point to the failing policy
of No Child Left Behind which has been
hanging over our educational system like a
Damocles sword and leaves no money,
energy, or time to be spent on gardening
and cooking with the harvested produce.
My visits to the garden, however, show
me something else. I see plenty of opportunities
for the students at Stratton and the
youth at alternative programs at Columbia
Center and I become optimistic. We can
demand from our Board of Education and
school administrators that they incorporate
innovative gardening projects into the
curricula of these two educational centers,
and that they put aside the fear of low
cumulative test scores. Existing models
show that such projects make learning
more enjoyable and effective, can bring
together ethnically and culturally diverse
students, and help connect schools and
families. Keep pressing on and, in the
meanwhile, get involved with the work of
Randolph Street Community Garden by
acquiring a patch of garden, volunteering
your time and talents, and donating
money and needed material.
Contact Information:
Dawn Blackman
C/O Champaign Church of the Brethren
1210 N. Neil Street
Champaign, Il 61820
Charles Doty

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