The History of Chicago’s Community Gardens

community gardens mushroomsThis week marks the last scare of frost for the Chicago farmers. Soon you will see community gardens blooming city-wide as urbanites work to keep Chicago true to its motto Urbs in Horto, or City in a Garden. Gardens, especially community gardens, hold a place in Chicago’s history. Today, community gardens blanket Chicago’s neighborhoods, often to fill the voids of blight and food deserts.

A Ghost in the Archives

In the Chicago Archives, I searched for any record of the vast practice. Though they are out there, the records are difficult to search. The concept of the community garden is so simple; the words to name it don’t fit into a search code. The earliest name I could find for it in the Chicago Archives was vacant lot gardening as a project of 19th century settlement houses and charity workers to cultivate the slums. The communal garden gives beauty to barren space, supplemental food, and a connection to a community.

Then I thought of the Victory Gardens. Commonly associated with WWII, the campaign actually began during the Great War. It caught on late in WWI, however, and was poorly organized, so gardens were rarely fruitful. After a stint in the thirties as a relief effort for unemployed, the system of communal gardening was perfected for the Second World War.

Chicago community gardens victory gardens WWII
Mannequins from the 1940s bring in Spring with a store window.

Gardening to Victory in WWII

During the 1940s, Chicago led the way in Victory Gardens. Not only did it have so much to offer geographically by way of vacant lots, but also socially with a surplus of undernourished working class. In addition, Chicago was the first to register Victory Gardens. Sometimes supplies like seeds and simple tools were given for a small fee. I found many pamphlets, almost almanacs for the Chicago gardener, explaining rules like the last frost and crop recommendations. Chicago encouraged Victory Gardens in every way—even glamorizing them in a Marshall Field’s window display as pictured above. Hard to imagine such a display when we lead guests there during the Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour.

community gardens

Community Gardens Today

Today urban gardens combat a less direct enemy. On a late afternoon, I enjoy a stroll through the Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm in the Logan Square neighborhood. This spring will begin their fourth growing season in collaboration with the Christopher House, whose pantry receives half the farm’s harvest. The other half goes to those who work the garden collaboratively—as opposed to being divided into lots as some gardens do.  Even if you don’t have the time to help out, it makes for a lovely place to visit. By giving beauty, growing food, and building community, Chicago gardens like the Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm continue to accomplish victory after victory.

~Elizabeth S. Tieri: Tour Guide

Share:

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on pinterest
Pinterest
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn

be a
curious
person!

SIGN UP FOR OCCASIONAL UPDATES FROM CHICAGO DETOURS.

Ellen

Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”
Robert
GetYourGuide

Jen

Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”
Heather
TripAdvisor

Elyse

Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.

Anthony

Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.

Marie

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”
Lorit
TripAdvisor

Sonny

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K
TripAdvisor

Alex

Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K
Yelp

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F
Yelp

Book a virtual tour

Fill in your details below