Gina Jamison recounts the history of her community garden during a September tour organized by the Chicago Community Gardeners Association. Photo by Rob Reid

Over the span of a century, a Late Victorian mansion filled up with new arrivals during the Great Migration, emptied out, and crumbled into ruin – leaving space for rebirth as an urban garden.

When Gina Jamison’s grandfather arrived in Chicago from North Carolina in the 1940s, he bought that mansion and coach house on West Warren Boulevard. As he rented out the dozen or so bedrooms to relatives transitioning to the new city, Jamison herself grew up next door.

As the neighborhood declined in subsequent decades, Jamison moved to Oak Park, but never lost connection to her birthplace. In 1984, she bought the mansion from her uncle who owned it.

By that time, people were stealing bricks from the crumbling structure. The city demolished the building in 1986, but Jamison held onto the vacant land even as other properties in the area fell prey to outside speculators

In the ensuing decades, she slowly began to envision a space to teach gardening to children and adults while providing a supply of fresh produce for the surrounding neighborhood. In 2011, she planted the first seeds and named the garden Kuumba Tre-Ahm Community Garden after her grandchildren Trevon and Ahmari, then aged 10 and 12.

They were “the only ones who saw my vision,” she said.

A community of gardens

Jamison’s dream is particularly relevant for East Garfield Park, a community area in which more than half of residents must travel over a half-mile to reach a supermarket, ranking it 60th of Chicago’s 77 community areas, according to Chicago Health Atlas.

Kuumba Tre-Ahm is one of many formerly vacant lots now productively addressing the food supply problem. The Fulton Community Garden, the Madison Street Vegetable Garden, and other gardens in the Garfield Park Garden Network all engage community members in local food production and distribution. They each supply fresh produce to the biweekly Garfield Park Neighborhood Market.

Thanks in part to this market, 62% of East Garfield Park adults now say it’s easy for them to find fresh produce, ranking the area 32nd among 77 communities, according to Chicago Health Atlas.

‘More beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it’

Sage from Kuumba Tre-Ahm Community Garden. Photo by Rob Reid

The word “Kuumba” derives from the Swahili word meaning “to create.” It also represents one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, “leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.”

In 2010, Jamison met community leader Angela Taylor, who shared ideas with her for improving the vacant lot. Over time they’d become like “two peas in a pod,” collaborating in building community and supplying fresh produce.

She also credited former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration with nurturing her dream.

“Daley was all about beautification, gardening,” she said, referring to his “City in a Garden” vision. The Daley-initiated Sustainable Backyards Program offers rebates to homeowners for compost bins, rain barrels, native plants, trees, and compost bins, while NeighborSpace, a nonprofit land trust, protects gardens through a nonprofit urban land trust. 

But she’s particularly interested in building community with the neighborhood’s children and engaging them with opportunities to learn gardening. Elementary school students from Willa Cather experience Jamison’s garden firsthand — they see, touch, and taste the beautiful crops, including sweet potatoes, Italian plums, cherries, kale, horseradish, and tomatoes. They also participate actively by assisting with watering and other basic gardening tasks.  

“You’ve got to grab them babies and teach them,” Jamison said, “because when they’re older they might have to grow their own.”

Teaching Future Gardeners

Rainbow chard and kale at Limes Miles for Smiles, 2901 W. Warren. Photo by Rob Reid

Across the street from Kuumba, Nicole Hunter runs Limes Smiles for Miles, an outdoor program for low-income children ages 3 to 5. Noticing the lack of an early intervention program for children of color with autism or Down Syndrome in West Garfield, North Lawndale, and Austin, Hunter started her own program after having been a preschool teacher for 20 years.

Launched this summer, the program runs from a lot that Jamison picked up for $1 in 2015 as part of the city’s Large Lots program. A predecessor of today’s ChiBlockBuilder, Large Lots encouraged community stewardship by selling vacant lots to property owners on the same block on the condition that they hold the land for at least five years.

The land is now lush with rainbow chard, kale, bell peppers, tomatoes, squash, and sweet potatoes. In this setting, children in Hunter’s program “roam, learn, and play through nature” as they learn science, math, literacy, and nutrition while developing social skills. As they water plants, measure the nutritional content of produce with a refractometer, and listen to stories, their parents participate in a parent support group.

Produce for the People

Nicole Hunter with her 4-year-old son Dwight at the neighborhood market. Photo by Rob Reid

Two Saturdays per month from June to October, community growers sell their fresh produce at the Garfield Park Neighborhood Market. The market has been supplying organic produce to neighbors since 2012. Located in a parking lot in front of the Hatchery, a food business incubator built in 2018 at 135 N. Kedzie, the market moves indoors in the winter and spring.

Jamison and Hunter are joined by Angela Taylor, who sells tomatoes, kale, and collard greens. Last fall, Taylor began coordinating an effort to deliver surplus produce to neighborhood senior centers.

“Who’s chronicling our story about this?” Taylor said. “It’s a wonderful thing we’re doing.”

As the story in Garfield Park progresses, the community of gardeners of all ages continues to grow.