Volunteers were still putting the finishing touches on the newly minted Island Oasis community garden a day before the much-anticipated Sept. 19 grand opening.
Formerly known as the Mason Community Garden, the lot at 1114 S. Mason Ave. has been extensively renovated into a combination of a garden, a play area and an outdoor meeting space. The 1100 South Mason Block Club teamed up with NeighborSpace, a community garden development nonprofit, and Human Scale, a nonprofit architecture firm, to acquire the lot from the city and build the amenities.
The volunteers involved in the project said that it demonstrates how much the community can accomplish when they work together and that they’re proud to do their part to improve the Island’s only park.
The Island neighborhood is separated from the rest of the Austin community area by the Eisenhower Expressway in the north and industrial businesses in the east.
Nate Tubbs, president of the Mason block club, has 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.
The block club has been taking care of the Mason Avenue lot since 2018, using it as a community garden, a play area and a meeting space. They wanted to improve the space, but they didn’t have the money and resources to do it.
East Garfield Park-based NeighborSpace, 445 N. Sacramento Blvd., helps community groups maintain community gardens by paying for insurance, providing access to water and sharing resources, leaving the community groups to handle the actual gardening. If the groups are interested in making improvements, NeighborSpace helps raise the funds and works with the contractors to get it done.
On Feb. 29, the city sold the lot to NeighborSpace for $1. Robin Cline, the organization’s assistant director, said that COVID-19 drove home the importance of outdoor gathering spaces.
“Using community gardens as natural spaces for intergenerational activity, not just for planting, but for playing, for being together, for noticing nature, for being part of a community… the Island Oasis garden is just that, an oasis for this very moment,” she said.
Throughout late 2020 and early 2021, Human Scale worked with residents to refine the concept. One of the volunteers involved said she appreciates that the nonprofit took their views into account.
Tubbs said that the garden’s name was changed during the design process.
“[The neighbors wanted] to convey that the space is for the entire Island neighborhood to enjoy and find rest,” he said. “Our neighborhood does not have any other parks or gardens, so we wanted to connect this space directly to the community.”
The garden features planters by the fence and along the sides, shelters with tables and benches on the east side of the garden, a wooden stage with a pull-down screen and a wooden pit near the middle, and a play structure on the west end.
According to Aylen Pacheco, founder of Human Scale and the manager for the garden project, the benches can be moved in order to serve as seating when the stage is in use, or as benches for those who garden. She also said that they tried to use as many existing features as possible. For example, the play structure stairs used the existing stumps.
Pacheco recalled when she first saw the lot in November 2020, when it was little more than dirt with some planters. Everything that went up since, she said, is a testament to the community’s hard work.
“When the community is given the opportunity to make decisions and be involved throughout the entire development, it produces long lasting and meaningful spaces,” she said. “Together, we transformed an empty lot into a garden, play space and a source of civic pride.”
Volunteers had their last work day on Sept. 18. The grand opening celebration took place the following afternoon.
Tiffany Sanders, who lives in a house directly south of the garden, said she’s been volunteering from the beginning, describing it as “a highlight of my summer.”
“I’m really excited about the garden, and the potential it has for the kids in the community,” she said. “We can come together here, socialize and just enjoy.”
Patricia Quinn, who was among the volunteers who brought food, said that she was impressed that Human Scale took community input into account.
“Since no one has built the park on the Island, we decided to do it ourselves,” she reflected. “This is the community coming together, working.”
Judy Wilson said she was also glad that the neighborhood now had its own park
“It brought the neighborhood together, and it made it look better, and it got us to [get to] know our neighbors,” she said.
The Island Oasis community garden will be open from 8 a.m. until sundown. For more information about the garden, visit https://islandchicago.org/the-island-oasis/