LOGAN SQUARE — The community garden at Altgeld and Sawyer avenues has been a neighborhood oasis for more than a decade; during warm months, neighbors flock there for fresh fruits and vegetables and community gatherings.
But the vibrant community hub could soon be uprooted for the kind of development people have come to associate with gentrification in Logan Square. After years of allowing a group of neighbors to run a garden there for free, the property owner wants to sell the land to a condo developer and move to Florida.
The neighbors who run Corner Farm are scrambling to save it from bulldozers, but they’re not in a financial position to do so. The developer is offering owner Al Jakich about $900,000, whereas the garden account only has a few thousand dollars in it.
“It makes me really sad,” said Jill Johnson, one of the neighbors who runs the garden. “There’s this sinking dread in the pit of my stomach. But [the property owner] has always been very fair with us, and we’ve always known it was impermanent.”
Johnson said the volunteers don’t feel any ill will toward Jakich, who, by allowing them to use the land for free and continuing to pay insurance on it, has been “far and away our biggest supporter.”
“I’m anti-gentrification and the Corner Farm is anti-gentrification … but at the same time, we also recognize the complexities of the situation,” she said. “Al is just a human being and this is a lot of money he’s being offered that could have a major impact on his life, and we can’t be angry about that. Who wouldn’t be compelled by an offer like that?”
Over the past decade, the Corner Farm crew — a core group of about a dozen neighbors and up to 40 volunteers — transformed the grassy corner lot at 2501 N. Sawyer Ave. into a thriving garden with sprawling fruit and vegetable patches and bright flower beds. The group forged partnerships with local organizations and schools like Christopher House, the school across the street, to throw educational events for kids and their families.
Last summer, neighbor Sarah Falkiner organized a series of socially distant performances at the garden. Each week an artist or musician took the stage: one week it was a cellist, the next a poet.
On days where there are no events or work days, neighbors who don’t have any affiliation with the garden sit on the patio chairs and enjoy the blooms.
An informal agreement with Jakich has made all of this possible. Jakich, who’s owned the property for 40 years, allowed Johnson and her group to use the land at no cost with the understanding he planned to build on it when the time was right.
After years of health problems, Jakich said he and his wife are ready to unload the property and move to another state. He said he’s fed up with the high taxes in Cook County and Illinois. He recently sold their two-flat down the street and plans to sell their single-family home near the garden.
“I think I’ve been very fair with everybody. I’ve never accepted any money from them, and I’ve always helped them whenever we could. And now is my time to move on, and it should be theirs, too,” he said.
Though they understand Jakich’s position, Johnson and her group aren’t quite ready to give up the space. In a desperate attempt to save the Corner Farm, the neighbors partnered with NeighborSpace, a nonprofit urban land trust, on a proposal to buy the land. Under the proposal, Jakich would donate a portion of the land to NeighborSpace and receive conservation tax credits. Jakich rejected the offer.
“I don’t like dealing with the IRS. I want them to not know my name. I’m 72,” Jakich said.
Meanwhile, Jakich has received several offers from developers, including one for about $900,000. That developer wants to build a six-flat condo complex. About two weeks ago, he gave Johnson’s volunteer-led group a month to meet the developer’s price.
The neighbors are now looking for a major donor or investor to step up and help them buy the land. Johnson acknowledges it will be difficult to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in such a short period of time. The group’s only fundraising experience is throwing an annual party at Whirlaway and raising a couple thousand dollars to buy soil, plants and tools. But she said they’re approaching the situation “with a spirit of hope.”
“We’ve gotta keep trying. We can’t just give up on the garden. It’s meant too much to us,” she said. “We want to keep it around so it can be there to mean a lot to other people in the future.”
Jakich bought the land in 1980, long before gentrification took hold. He said he planned to turn it into a parking lot for a restaurant and bar across the street, but that project fell through and he was left with an empty lot.
It’s unclear how much the property has gone up in value over the past 40 years. Jakich wouldn’t say how much he paid and Cook County records don’t list the price, but Jakich acknowledged Logan Square was not the hot neighborhood it is today when he bought the property.
It’s those forces at play that frustrate Johnson, she said.
“I’m angry that we live in a society where development is valued more than open, free public space, fresh produce and education for children,” Johnson said. “I’m so angry at that system, but it’s not fair to be angry at people who are just operating in that system. We’re all just trying to do what we feel is best.”
‘They Don’t Own The Property; I do’
Jakich is facing another obstacle in redeveloping the land.
Ahead of any redevelopment, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who represents the area where the garden is, wants to downzone the property so it’s consistent with other properties on the block.
The property is zoned RT-4, which allows for two-flats, townhouses, single-family homes and low-density apartment buildings. Waguespack wants to change the property’s underlying zoning to RS-3, which would restrict the use to a detached single family home or a two-flat.
The zoning change could be introduced at City Counil’s Committee on Zoning meeting April 20, said Paul Sajovec, Waguespack’s chief of staff.
“It is a land-use-planning-based decision on his part to bring the lot into conformity with the surrounding and adjacent zoning,” Sajovec said in an email.
Jakich is livid and plans to fight the measure in court if it comes to that. He said the same philosophy that has governed his negotiations with the Corner Farm crew applies here.
“They don’t own [the property]; I do. It’s for me to do with as I please,” he said.
As Jakich prepares for a battle with the alderman’s office, Johnson and her group are mentally preparing to say goodbye to the garden. Johnson said if they’re not able to bring in enough funding to buy the land, they hope to relocate to another lot in Logan Square, but so far they don’t have any leads on available lots.
“I’m hopeful that things will work out somehow. I know no matter what, the next few weeks I’m going to enjoy every moment I can out in that garden. Every moment is extra precious,” she said.
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