The I Grow Chicago community garden across the street from the "Peace House" in Englewood.

The I Grow Chicago community garden across the street from the "Peace House" in Englewood.

Dimitriy Leksanov / The Chicago Maroon

Before Robbin Carroll, Erin Vogel, and the rest of I Grow Chicago arrived, the house at West 64th Street and South Honore Street in Englewood carried a sickly, ragged coat of white paint. The windows were boarded up and, on the top floor, the boards were so run-down that they had begun to cave into the house. The porch was so rickety that it had to be removed and replaced entirely: first the stairs, then the porch itself. The nearby lots had been overrun by tall weeds and bald patches of barren, dusty land.

Now, those lots feature a paved basketball court and a well-kept, woodchip-covered garden. The other houses on the block, while still boarded up and unused, have been freshly painted. I Grow Chicago, a nonprofit organization, opened in 2014 following the purchase and renovation of their “Peace House,” the previously dilapidated residence that has since been turned into a fully functional home.

Vogel, the organization’s co-executive director and long-time friend of founder Robbin Carroll, continually highlighted the notion of activation: resurrection of community resources that had been previously cast aside.

“Activate, right?” said Vogel. “We activate things that other developers threw away, and we’re turning it into something in a really cool way.”

Inside the Peace House is a kitchen and food pantry that volunteers use to prepare community holiday dinners, as well as a large cache of school supplies, desks, books, and computers for donations and after-school programs. The garden, meanwhile, contains several plant beds and greenhouses, as well as a facility for multiple hens that were acquired last year. On the northeast end, there is an arrangement of stumps and a large wooden stage for outdoor, team-building activities—a strong indication of just how far the foundation has come.

“We joked that it was a garden by Google, since we didn’t really know what we were doing, but we knew that we could grow stuff. Englewood is a food desert, so our kids didn’t know that food came from the dirt, so these lots have been a way for us to create opportunities right here at our fingertips,” Vogel said.

I Grow Chicago is an example of how Chicago’s Large Lots Program can be successful, even on a small scale. Both its garden and basketball court were developed on lots that were acquired as part of the program.

The Large Lot Program began in March 2014 as part of the Green Healthy Neighborhoods (GHN) plan. GHN was a long-term effort to maximize the city’s community resources, including vacant land, following the depopulation of many community areas over the past half-century, including Englewood, Woodlawn, Fuller Park, and New City. The exodus, which was catalyzed by racist processes like redlining and blockbusting, left hordes of abandoned buildings. This gave way to “11,000 vacant lots, equivalent to more than 800 acres of vacant land,” per the city’s website.

GHN grew out of the efforts of several community partner organizations, including the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC Chicago), and the city itself. The Large Lots Program emerged as part of that, through a grassroots community outreach campaign by the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (RAGE). They proposed that anyone who owned property on the block should be able to buy city-owned vacant lots for one dollar, so long as they could hold on to the lot for five years and were not in debt to the city.

Vogel emphasized urban decay’s pernicious effect on residents, starting from the emotional level.

“I think what’s really important in our story is that there used to be a house for every single lot on the block, but now we have around 14 vacant lots. When these houses come down, it’s traumatizing,” she said. Vogel also mentioned how the abundance of abandoned lots creates neighborhood safety hazards.

“Something people also don’t consider is that these lots provide places to shoot from. You could potentially shoot from a block away if there’s a vacant lot, not a house, in the way,” Vogel said.

Website eases access

Four years ago, images from the 1950s of Englewood’s then-vibrant shopping district flashed behind Demond Drummer during his presentation at the Code for America Summit in San Francisco as he explained, “Today we have more vacant storefronts than thriving businesses, and our population is only a third of what it was just six decades ago.” Drummer, the tech organizer for Teamwork Englewood, then displayed an image of the view from his desk: a 13-acre empty lot that sits where a bustling retail center was just a few decades prior.

That lot, one of 1,457 vacant properties throughout Englewood as of last year, is a sobering example of Chicago’s urban decay. However, as Drummer repeated throughout his speech, “The neighborhood has not given up on itself.”  As evidence, Drummer cited the Large Lots Program, which he collaborated on with the goal of reducing blight throughout the city.

According to Drummer, Large Lots was a logical extension of what was already going on throughout Englewood and other neighborhoods: “[RAGE] said, ‘We have a lot of resident members in our group that are already taking care of these city-owned vacant lots. We have some ideas of how to get these lots back into private hands.’”

However, according to Drummer, the program was technologically cumbersome early on.

“You had to download a PDF to figure out what the policy was all about, then use either the city data portal or the GIS zoning map to determine which lots were on your block and available, all while you’re toggling between the county website and the city website,” said Drummer.

So in December 2014, Drummer, Derek Eder of DataMade, and others worked to launch a new program website, largelots.org, featuring a color-coded map of lots, a simple outline of program details, and easy application instructions. The pilot program was underway, first in Englewood, then throughout the rest of the city.

Since then, many private individuals and community organizations, like I Grow Chicago, have used the program and put the lots to use. Many lots have been converted into community gardens. Woodlawn in particular has been a hotbed for urban agriculture—many garden owners have coalesced into the Garden Resources of Woodlawn (GROW) consortium to share resources, display projects, and recruit volunteers.

Despite I Grow Chicago’s great success following its inception, their journey has not been without difficulties. Vogel referenced a failed attempt to refurbish another dollar lot, just a few blocks away. “We also had a dollar lot on 64th and Paulina, but it’s out of our sight range, and the city requires that it has a fence. Every screw got taken on that fence,” she said.

Another area of concern that Vogel touched on was the lottery system. Currently, applicants receive lots based on their location, but if two applicants are equidistant, then the lot goes to a randomly drawn recipient. This can disadvantage people who have taken care of a lot for years, but do not actually own the deed to the lot.

Too open to outside developers?

Other times, residents may not be able to buy the lot that they have been taking care of; while the one-dollar price tag is alluring, it is only the tip of the monetary iceberg.

“The taxes [on the lots] can be anywhere between $1,500 and three grand,” said Vogel.  These costs also come before including the cost of the gardening itself.

Literacy and a general lack of awareness about the program create further barriers against residents taking full advantage of Large Lots. According to the Chicago Literacy Alliance, “An estimated 882,000, or 30 percent of adults in Chicago have low basic literacy.” And, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 16.1 percent of Chicago households do not have a computer, while 26.5 percent of households do not feature a broadband internet subscription.

“Wi-Fi and technology are limited. We’re one of the few houses on our block with Wi-Fi. Not everyone can read, if you put it on a flyer, and not everyone will care to read,” Vogel said.

Large Lots’s participation requirements also leave neighborhoods vulnerable to a less community-oriented kind of development. To purchase a lot through Large Lots, one need only own property on the block, not necessarily live there. Developers who own properties throughout the city have begun exploiting these parameters, creating a different kind of vacancy in which absentee owners are the lots’ caretakers.

While Vogel has not experienced exploitation of the Large Lots program firsthand, she has seen shady dealings occur with other properties on her block.

“There’s a house on our block, a beautiful brick home that’s been vacant as long as we’ve been there that was caught up in a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme,” said Vogel.

Meanwhile, a recent article in Chicago magazine chronicles the experiences of Luerlis Gutierrez, a resident of East Garfield Park who had been contributing to a neighborhood garden since 2010. After 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. contacted the land trust NeighborSpace, which protects community gardens, to help secure a deed for Gutierrez’s garden, the lot was still sold through Large Lots to Mike McInerney of McInerney Builders, Inc. McInerney was able to buy the lot because he owned three lots across the street.

According to the article, McInerney then told Gutierrez to stop tending to the land, and the lot has since become host to rats and drug addicts. Gutierrez believes that McInerney has no intention of actually building on the land, but rather intends to resell the lot once its value rises.

There are mechanisms in place to discourage exploitation of the program, including the long wait time, which can span upward of 9–12 months, and fines for failure to properly maintain the lot, such as by allowing the grass to become excessively tall or neglecting to put up a fence. In the case of Gutierrez and McInerney, however, McInerney has already received a $600 fine for failing to mount a fence but has continued to hold on to the lot.

Taryn Roch, a director at LISC Chicago, a community development intermediary, offered a different perspective on the issues surrounding the ability to buy a lot through Large Lots without actually living on the block, indicating that this ability arose from strong local support.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind that Englewood residents were the ones who advocated for the program to be open to people who didn’t live on the block,” Roch said. “The way that I understand it—and this is going way back to the [GHN] plan—community residents that were consulted about the program felt that some of them, [although] they maybe owned their grandfather’s home or grandmother’s home in the neighborhood, but didn’t live on the block, still wanted to have access to the program.”

When asked whether support for this part of the program remained, Roch replied that it depends on the community.

Program expands

After the 2014 pilot release, the Large Lots program has undergone two expansions. One was in 2016, with the authorization of the LISC-funded second Englewood Quality of Life Plan. The second came in May 2018, which saw the city market “3,219 empty lots on the South and West sides,” per the Chicago Tribune, with about a third of those being new to the program.

The 2018 addition of more dollar lots into the already-large pool may make the program more vulnerable to exploitation by giving developers more chances to inadvertently purchase an existing community garden.

However, for Vogel the benefits of expanding the initiative outweigh the drawbacks. Of the 14 empty lots by West 64th Street and South Honore Street, a majority are not from Large Lots, but available through the Cook County Land Bank. Those lots are sold at $4,500 a piece, and for nonprofits like I Grow Chicago and the Kusanya Café, which recently purchased a dollar lot to use as a community gathering space, that price can be a deal-breaker. Thus, Large Lots can be naturally more attractive for certain buyers who find the $4,500 to be a significant barrier.

For organizations like I Grow Chicago, affordability can snowball into success. The low initial cost of the Peace House and the two lots facilitated summer basketball tournaments, after-school programs, Thanksgiving dinners, and other charitable contributions that garnered city-wide attention and a partnership with the Chicago Bears. That partnership facilitated organizational growth, from donations to purchase several gardening beds and another house on the block, to visits by celebrities like rookie wide receiver Anthony Miller.

For wealthy developers, $4,500 is next to nothing—it might as well be another dollar lot. However, to an Englewood resident or a nonprofit, that difference is critical. While an expansion of the program may enable more developers to buy up city-owned community gardens, it could also allow more neighbors to take advantage of the lots, and more organizations like I Grow Chicago to get off the ground, and it would help to accomplish the program’s original goal: to reduce urban decay throughout Chicago.

As it stands, community support for the Large Lots program is strong, but far from universal. While the idea was simple in its design, it has led to both positive and negative consequences. Though it was intended primarily to reduce blight, it has since grown into a springboard for nonprofit organizations throughout the city. Conversely, the aspect of the program that originated directly from a strong community push, the ability to purchase a lot without actually living on the block, has now become an inconvenience to residents looking to make the most of their local resources. These consequences are not only far-reaching, but also tremendously inconsistent from neighborhood to neighborhood.

This has made the future of the program difficult to predict. When asked about her outlook on Large Lots going forward, Vogel said, “I think they could [exploit the program more heavily], but I’m not a fortune-teller. People are gonna try to exploit everything.” As technology becomes more accessible, so too will Large Lots, opening up significant opportunities for Chicago residents, but perhaps also subjecting those same people to considerable risk.