What was once a vacant lot at 5413 West Madison Street is now a garden teeming with life and surrounded by a wrought iron fence decorated with the U.S. military code of arms.
On June 14, after months of planning, development and hard work, community leaders participated in the grand opening ceremony and flag raising for the 29th Ward Veterans’ Peace Garden.
The ceremony included the presentation and raising of the United States and Prisoner of War (POW) flags by the Chicago Police Honor Guard. Attendees browsed photos depicting the garden’s construction that were taped to surrounding fences and listed to a ceremonial bagpipe performance, along with speeches from Congressman Danny K. Davis, 29th Ward Alderman Chris Taliaferro and others.
Ald. Taliaferro, to whom the South Austin Neighborhood Association first presented the idea of a veterans’ peace garden in the 29th Ward, spoke about how the garden will honor Austin veterans.
“Although this is a small token to show that we appreciate the tranquility of living in the United States, we appreciate the democracy that we are building upon in the United States,” Taliaferro said. “This is just a small token to show our appreciation. So thank you.”
SANA received $155,000 from the city’s Open Space Impact Fee program and another $90,000 from Ald. Taliaferro’s menu budget to build the garden. In addition to Taliaferro’s contributions, SANA President Cassandra Norman emphasized that this garden wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the help of NeighborSpace, a non-profit that buys spaces to help build community gardens, and Christy Webber Landscapes, the Chicago-based company that helped refine the design for the garden.
“So we started with an architect and the space was privately owned,” Norman said. “NeighborSpace purchased the space, as long as we were going to put a garden on it. Then we went to the alderman to seek public funds. With those public funds, we were able to go to Christy Webber and hire horticulturists to do the plantings. The type of plantings we wanted were more medicinal and had a calming effect.”
The location of the garden was carefully decided, as well. The peace garden, and the vacant lot that once occupied the space, sits directly across from MacArthur’s, a restaurant that’s often frequented by Austin veterans. Mac Alexander, who owns MacArthur’s and is also a Vietnam veteran himself, attended the event with his grand-daughters. He said the garden is something special.
“It’s an honor,” Alexander said. “We have never been honored, or I haven’t been, since we’ve been back. So this is really something big. [It’s] right in the neighborhood, directly across from us. So it’s great.”
Jerry Warren, another black Vietnam veteran who served from 1967 to 1969, echoed Alexander’s sentiment. Warren said the garden honors black veterans in a way that hasn’t been done in the past. Warren, who recalled his commanding officer’s racism, the stigma of being a Vietnam veteran and the shame of wearing the uniform, says that times have changed for the better.
“I see things are looking up for black veterans these days,” said Warren. “When I came home from Vietnam, I had to leave my uniform in the washroom, because they called us baby killers. I went home to Mississippi and there were still some places that told me I couldn’t go in. So what a change. I love it.”
Norman wants people to know that the garden will be a space for the entire community — not just veterans — to enjoy.
“It’s not just for veterans,” Norman said. “It’s in honor of veterans, but it’s for the entire Austin community. It was created as a medicinal garden, a place of peace and healing for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, so that people will have a place to come to just to think.”
Norman said the park will also be available for private events, such as weddings or barbecues. From April to October, interested parties will be able to use the space in exchange for a small donation to SANA for park maintenance costs. Outside of the days when the park will be closed off for general use, the space will be open for public use, something that Norman believes is important for Austin veterans.
“They gather at MacArthur’s,” Norman said. “Usually, I go over there and visit and talk with them. And they don’t have a gathering space. They have memories and stories to share with each other. Some of them went to school with each other. Because we have such a long-standing war, there will be new veterans, as they said. We will have to honor new veterans at some point. And they will. We hope that the chain will continue.”