The Chicago City Council voted unanimously on Feb. 26 to approve a deal that will allow a group of nonprofits to transform the Mason Community Garden in Austin into a public asset for the entire Island neighborhood. 

The garden is located on a 3,750-square-foot lot previously owned by the city at 1114 S. Mason Ave. For the past three years, the 1100 South Mason Block Club has been maintaining it and using it to grow plants, hold events and give local kids a place to play.  

The Feb. 26 vote transferred the lot to NeighborSpace, an East Garfield Park-based nonprofit located at 445 N. Sacramento Blvd. NeighborSpace helps community organizations like the Mason block club protect and improve their community gardens.  

Although the details are still being finalized, the plan calls for adding new play areas, a dedicated community gathering space and a walking path. The design is expected to be finalized by April, so that construction can start in May and finish in June. 

The Island neighborhood is separated from the rest of the Austin community area by the industrial properties to the east and the Eisenhower Expressway to the north. 

Nate Tubbs, the founder of the Mason block club, said that, because the neighborhood doesn’t have its own park, residents end up going across the expressway to Columbus Park, 500 S. Central Ave., or to the parks in neighboring Oak Park and Cicero.

He said that he and the neighbors were concerned about the garbage piling up and general neglect. After a successful April 2018 community clean-up, they agreed to turn it into a community garden.

Since then, Tubbs said, it has become a community gathering space and a play area for kids. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, it continued to host gatherings and events. Their efforts got support from the neighboring Clark Elementary School, 1045 S. Monitor Ave.

With NeighborSpace’s help, the block club wanted to build on those uses and improve it for the benefit of the entire neighborhood, adding more permanent fixtures such as seats and play equipment. 

NeighborSpace helps community groups that want to operate the garden by taking on financial obligations and other property ownership responsibilities, paying for insurance, providing access to water and sharing resources. 

The community groups that created the gardens are responsible for running the gardens themselves. If the groups are interested in making improvements, NeighborSpace helps raise the funds and works with the contractors to complete the work.

The nonprofit previously worked with the South Austin Neighborhood Association (SANA), the Christy Webber Landscapes design firm and Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) to transform a vacant lot at 5413 W. Madison St. into the Veterans Peace Garden. 

In order to make the renovations possible, the city agreed to sell the lot to NeighborSpace for a symbolic $1. The sales agreement included a covenant allowing the city to take the lot back if it’s used for anything except a community garden.

The agreement cleared the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate on Feb. 16 and was approved by the full council on Feb. 26 as part of a larger package of ordinances and resolutions. 

According to Clark Elementary’s Facebook page, the school and the community residents have been working with Human Scale, a Chicago architecture nonprofit that provides design services for “public spaces in historically disinvested neighborhoods” to come up with the new garden design. 

Tubbs said there have been several virtual meetings, and that they were “getting very close” to finalizing the design.

Robin Cline, NeighborSpace’s assistant director, said that while the exact costs won’t be available until the plan is final, their goal is to raise at least $40,000. 

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...