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Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards

How West Loop Residents Are Bringing Life to Vacant Lots With Kiddie Pools And Rainwater

A transportable community garden is sprouting across from Mary Bartelme Park with the help from harvested rainwater.

West Loop residents are transforming a vacant lot at 37 S. Sangamon into a temporary community garden. [Moshe Tamssot]

WEST LOOP — Landing a space for a community garden in the city isn’t easy, especially in a rapidly changing neighborhood like the West Loop.

High costs for vacant lots and continual development has made it challenging for aspiring urban farmers in the area to test their green thumbs, but it is possible: if you think outside the plot.

West Loop resident Moshe Tamssot, the founder of neighborhood-focused Facebook page True West Loop, has been using vacant parcels along 37 S. Sangamon to store transportable community gardens.

Using kiddie pools, buckets and some rainwater, Tamssot has created a 100-pod community garden, and hopes to add an architecture garden and an apiary.

“Our mission is basically to create gardens in vacant lots,” Tamssot said. “But it’s more than just a garden. It’s all about growing community.”

Tamssot is diving into the project with complete awareness that the land will eventually be developed; but in the interim, he wants to seize the opportunity to use the space to build a sense of community among West Loop residents.

“The developer may change their mind tomorrow and decide to build,” Tamssot said. “We understand that. What we are doing is building a permanent gardening community, but the garden itself will be transportable.”

Shameeta Thanki, left, and Jody Campbell, right, help align rows of the GrowPods in the temporary community lot. (Photo: Mauricio Peña)

The Sangamon Lot

In 2013, developers Quest Realty Group purchased the property for $2.5 million with plans to build a 28-unit condominium, but the idea never came to fruition. After the two-story building that once housed an industrial safety products distributor was knocked down, the vacant lot was cordoned off by a chain-linked fence and green construction fabric.

Last fall, Tamssot put in motion his big vision to make use of the vacant property across Mary Bartelme Park. With the help from neighborhood hardware store JC Licht True Value, Tamssot created a fire pit in the lot using remnants from the facade of a three-story Italianate-style building demolished to make room for new developments at 1000 W. Monroe.

Now, Tamssot is working with the lot’s new owners to have the community garden ready for the 2018 gardening season. He also hosts orientation workshops for rookie (and advanced) gardeners at the hardware store.

Before Tamssot began this project, the West Loop was home to just one community garden. The Skinner Park garden has nine plots, but interested residents face long wait times before spots become available.

“The only way you can garden there is if someone leaves,” Tamssot said. “Last year, only one person left, and so for all the thousands of people in the West Loop that want to garden they have no choice, they are completely out of luck.”

Using kiddie pools, buckets and some rainwater, the 100-pod community garden is already a big hit with neighbors.

When he first announced the portable garden plan on his neighborhood Facebook page, the 100 spots were scooped up within a week. Tamssot says he has a waitlist of more than 70 people and hopes to activate another vacant lot with a community garden if the waitlist reaches 100.

By offering each pod for $100, he raised $10,000 to purchase materials needed for the garden.

The Merit School of Music, which sits behind the Sangamon lot, will play a critical role in the garden’s irrigation system.

“We are going to be harvesting rainwater from the Merit School of Music roof,” Tamssot said. “We are going to also be doing something unique and tap into the air conditioning units on the roof and basically capturing their condensate.”

The school’s engineers are working with the True West Loop Garden Committee to figure out how to collect the 12,500 gallons per inch of rainfall on Merit’s roof.

A collection system will run from the roof, distributing the harvested water to the daisy-chained GrowPods along the Sangamon lot.

Tamssot said the simplicity of the garden is what makes it so powerful. “We can take these pods and basically lay them on top of skids anywhere in Chicago, and harvest the rainwater necessary to grow food and more importantly to grow community.”

A transportable community garden is sprouting across from Mary Bartelme Park with the help from harvested rainwater. (Photo: Mauricio Peña)

A Merit School of Music representative said the school jumped at the garden partnership opportunity.

“As a community music school, we understand the power of people coming together,” said Steven Berry, the Vice President of Development and Marketing at Merit School of Music.

“For us, we are all about community and community building and excited to engage with our West Loop neighbors. As long as they have permission of the lot owners and the developers to continue on, we are happy to provide services to keep that space beautiful until it turns into something else.”

Adrienne Cragnotti, who has been assisting in the community garden effort, said the idea for a garden has come a long way since the seed was planted nearly a year ago.

“Moshe and I were talking about what could be done with the vacant lot, and we discussed a garden,” she says. “Now, it’s actually happening. It’s exciting.”

Heather McLennan, 43, and her husband, Brett, 50, have been growing tomatoes, herbs and flowers for 10 years on their deck. They purchased a garden pod to interact with other West Loop residents.

“We want our kids to have more of an opportunity to garden,” Heather McLennan said. “It’s also a good way to meet more people in the community.”

Heather McLennan, and her husband, Brett McLennan, prepare a bucket for their GrowPod. (Photo: Mauricio Peña)

Don and Jennifer Reimus said constant redevelopment and dwindling community spaces in the neighborhood has left them feeling disconnected. The garden project will change that, the couple said.

“The neighborhood has changed so much over the last 15 years,” Jennifer Reimus said. “I feel like a sense of community has been lacking.”

Tamssot said he eventually wants to have a community table, uniting residents and developers to share in the harvest.

“One of the things we are trying to do with the community table is to get the developers, landowners, the city, and the residents to break bread together and to actually have a conversation about development,” he said.