An emergency housing facility at 302 N. Parkside Ave. recently got a new garden on the front lawn that’s not not only environmentally friendly, but can help reduce flooding. The garden is operated by the Austin People’s Action Center (APAC). 

The garden features plants that are native to Illinois prairies, but which were treated as weeds by European settlers. Their roots efficiently extract moisture from the ground, which helps reduce the flooding in the surrounding area. The garden also features a table with chairs that fold into its sides and a bench made out of 500 pounds of volunteer-collected shopping bags. 

The official garden dedication was originally supposed to take place on Oct. 4, but concerns about rain led the organizers to postpone it until Oct. 24. When rain fell on that day as well, they decided to proceed anyway. 

Huddled under a tent, members of APAC praised the garden as an oasis of peace and something that area young people can invest in.

APAC was founded in 1980 by social worker Cynthia Williams to serve Austin’s neediest residents and to pool together volunteers and resources from the city and suburbs. Based at 5152 W. Chicago Ave., the nonprofit currently offers programs for families with young children, teens, young adults and seniors. 

According to Williams, APAC currently uses the Parkside Avenue building to house youths “who need placement or some type of help” and “provide support and opportunities for them.”

The garden came about from a collaboration between APAC and River Forest’s Temple Har Zion, 1040 N. Harlem Ave. In the wake of the fallout from the killing of George Floyd, the temple reached out to APAC to see if they could collaborate on a project. 

During the dedication, Williams recalled that she had no idea what native plants even were, let alone what benefits they brought, until they started developing the project. Williams, however, said she looked forward to the garden being installed.

Phyllis Rubin, of Temple Har Zion, said that she was impressed to see how enthusiastic the kids who live in the building were about the garden and how tenaciously they worked. She said they were so persistent that they discovered a layer of plastic underground left over from the previous landscaping efforts.

A bench made of plastic bags inside of the new prairie garden outside of the emergency housing facility operated by the Austin Peoples Action Center. | Igor Studenkov

“Those kids were fantastic,” Rubin said

While the kids did their part, much of the work was done by adult volunteers and they got help from the Interfaith Green Network, Go Plastic Free organization, and West Cook Wild Ones, a west suburban nonprofit that promotes native plants and landscaping solutions that don’t harm wild animals.

The resulting garden includes a walking path, with one branch winding its way along the south side of the building and the other heading toward the front path. While much of the garden still looks barren, Rubin assured the opening attendees that it would look very different in two to three years, when the plants have a chance to grow.

A seemingly wooden bench sits at the spot where the paths fork, facing the street. Rubin said that Trex, a Winchester, V.a.- based manufacturer of eco-friendly outdoor furniture, made it out of about 40,000 single-use plastic bags that Interfaith Green Network and other Oak Park-area community organizations collected last spring. It took three weeks to collect the bags, which shows “how much plastic we’re using that we don’t need,” Rubin said. 

In a prepared video statement, the temple’s Rabbi Adir Glick referred to the Garden of Eden.

“After the world was created, God instructed Adam and Eve to tend the garden,” he said. “It’s what we should be doing together — tending.” 

Williams said that she’s grateful for the garden, adding that she and other organizers now hope to install a similar garden north of the building. 

“I just want to thank everyone for everything you did and all of the hard work,” she said. “It’s a relief, it’s a pleasure. We enjoy it. I enjoy it so much.”