Chicago School Outcry Might Save Popular Community Garden From Demolition

"This is more than just a garden," one teacher said. "It's a culture developed over the last 25 years."

The future of a 3-and-a-half-acre garden beside a North Side Chicago school has sparked controversy between the City of Chicago and the school's students and teachers, as well as the surrounding community.

The garden, which sits on Sunnyside Avenue between Campbell and Maplewood next to Waters Elementary School in Lincoln Square, could be in jeopardy because of a Chicago Public Schools-led construction project to expand the school.

The school district proposed building an annex to provide more room for the growing school population. Teachers at the school said they didn't know the annex would be built over the garden.

"We didn’t find out about where it was until someone showed up here and was taking pictures and taking measurements," said Pete Leki, Waters Elementary director of ecology programs.

"Everyone was excited to hear about the annex," neighbor Susan Cartland said, "but then to hear they might be taking something so dear to this school, it's difficult to swallow."

Leki said he helped start the garden in 1991, when there was nothing there but "concrete and asphalt.”

Over the years, he said, students removed the asphalt themselves, transforming the garden into what it is today and allowing for future generations to take ecology studies here. They even use lunchroom food to learn how to compost, Leki said.

Members of the community have plots in the garden too and tend to them every Wednesday night.

"The garden is the heart and soul of this community," Cartland said. 

"This is more than just a garden," Leki said. "It's a culture developed over the last 25 years."

CPS officials said they’ve heard from the Waters garden community and have temporarily suspended site preparations and environmental studies. While that brings some comfort to people like Leki and staff members, they said they are still concerned that plans might change.

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