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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

West Side Groups Working To Redesign Sears Sunken Garden: ‘Let’s Bring It Back To Its Beautiful State’

The Sunken Gardens are more than a century old. Their redesign will be a walk back in history that will allow residents to envision a new future for their community, organizers said.

A postcard depicting the old Sears complex shows the Sunken Garden in the lower right corner.
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NORTH LAWNDALE — A historical garden on the West Side is getting a makeover, and organizers want residents of the surrounding area to decide the look and feel of the upgrade.

The redesign of the Sears Sunken Garden is led by the GROWWS Committee, a neighborhood group dedicated to urban agriculture and beautification that’s affiliated with the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council. The group plans to revamp the garden as a way to showcase the neighborhood’s history and attract visitors.

Community meetings will give residents a chance to hear about the history behind the Sears Sunken Garden, learn about landscape design practices and share their opinions what they want from the redesigned garden.

The virtual meetings are scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday and Jan. 27.

Opened in 1907, the Sunken Garden at 899 S. Homan Ave. was built by Sears, Roebuck and Co. as leisure space for employees who worked on the sprawling 40-acre complex when the company was headquartered in Lawndale.

But Sears began pulling out of the West Side in the ’70s, first by relocating its corporate headquarters to the Sears Tower Downtown, then by closing its warehouses and distribution centers at the Lawndale campus in the ’80s.

When Sears left North Lawndale, thousands were left unemployed. As the area struggled economically, the beauty of the Sunken Garden also began to fade, organizers said.

“Let’s bring it back to its beautiful state … so it can be a place in the community that is looked upon as a tourist attraction,” said Reshorna Fitzpatrick, pastor of the historic Stone Temple church and a member of the GROWWS Committee.

“We’re trying to reimagine the Sunken Garden, and we want to do it with the community.”

The garden is meant to be a place of refuge for residents, so it is essential for them to participate in its development, Fitzpatrick said.

“If you get community buy-in, then people become a part of it. They take care of it, they love it, they embrace it, they spend time there and they take ownership,” Fitzpatrick said.

Feedback from residents will be incorporated into the plans for the garden by landscape designers Roy Diblik and Piet Oudolf, who helped design the 2.5-acre Lurie Garden Downtown in Millennium Park. The GROWWS Committee will raise money to pay for the landscaping.

The designers will be “interpreting what people perceive they would like to feel within their community. So we’re actually interpreting emotions with plants,” Diblik said.

The project will honor the past, present and future of North Lawndale by recognizing the area’s industrial history while incorporating current residents’ efforts to build a prosperous, more beautiful community, said Annamaria Leon, a member of the GROWWS committee.

“It also gives us the opportunity to walk back in time,” Leon said. “North Lawndale was the center of innovation. That’s our past. We get to reclaim that. We also get to see, moving through time, how we’ve gone from bohemian to Jewish to African American, to where we are at now.

“We get to reevaluate who we are as a community though this project.”

The true value of the garden isn’t just the end result of physical beauty, Leon said, but rather the journey the community takes together to envision an urban environment “that works for everybody and everything.”

“We’re sending a big message with this garden. We’re innovators,” Leon said. “We can have a garden that is world class … because that’s what North Lawndale is: a world class community.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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