A Chicago garden calls a Black community pushed to the margins back together again.
By Zach Mortice
Since 2009, a vacant lot turned community garden on the 4600 block of Winthrop Avenue in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood has commemorated the Winthrop Avenue Family, the descendants of a group of Black families who for much of the 20th century were confined to this one block of the predominantly white neighborhood. “Everybody who lived on the block [was] not necessarily blood-related, but we were so close we felt like we were, and still do,” says Emilie Lockridge, whose mother was born there in 1925.
The existing garden, however, did not “do a good job of telling the story of the Winthrop family,” says Justin Weidl, the director of neighborhood services for Uptown United, the community development corporation that manages the space. In addition to wanting a design that would offer more expository details, Uptown United and Winthrop Avenue Family members desired a space that would rekindle a communal sense of belonging.
Initially, the organization envisioned a low-budget, do-it-yourself intervention, but a $300,000 Public Outdoor Plaza grant from Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development encouraged the team to think bigger. With a turnaround of just three months, Uptown United hired MKSK (where Weidl’s wife, Brett Weidl, ASLA, is a landscape architect) to design the new Winthrop Family Historical Garden. The plan, which emerged in part from previous work done by the community design nonprofit Human Scale, takes a supergraphics approach, echoing the abstract geometry of a wall mural by Mauricio Ramirez with bright bands on the ground plane.
The graphics “delineate where activities can occur,” says Human Scale’s executive director, Walmer Saavedra. The need for programmatic differentiation is vital because this version of the garden is meant to do more things for more people. With the previous garden, “there was very little space for people to gather. You ended up standing on someone’s plot,” says Justin Weidl. The new design features an open plaza and event space, as well as shipping containers for storage and food service. The project was completed in October, but additional murals and interpretive elements are still to come.
Ben Helphand, the executive director of NeighborSpace, the community land trust that owns the land, says the garden has “become almost like a pilgrimage site” for Winthrop Avenue Family members. Gardening is cyclical in nature, bringing people who are scattered across the country together at certain times of the year. But it also brings a wider circle of people into this bit of neighborhood history. “Gardeners,” Helphand says, “end up being the stewards of a history that isn’t necessarily theirs.”