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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

West Side Group Wants To Turn Vacant Lots Into Community Gardens With Free Fitness Programs

Marcelino Riley, who has competed on "American Ninja Warrior," is raising money to build wellness sanctuaries so residents can grow their own food and work out for free.

The fitness garden at Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center.
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GARFIELD PARK — A West Side group is launching an effort to transform vacant lots into community gardens that will host free fitness programs.

Pull Up The City has launched a GoFundMe to help them overhaul vacant lots in East Garfield Park, Lawndale and West Humboldt Park. They’ll kick off their campaign with a launch event from 1-6 p.m. Sunday at the Above and Beyond Community Garden at Sacramento Boulevard and Lake Street.

The launch event will feature live music, movement lessons, a live mural painting, gardening workshops, therapeutic sound healing, fitness workshops, vegan food and smoothies.

The event will give residents a taste of what the transformed vacant lots could look like, said Pull Up The City founder Marcelino Riley.

“We want to get people out to the garden and we want to show people what’s possible,” said Riley, who has competed on “American Ninja Warrior.” “Our mission is to turn vacant lots into jackpots.”

The wellness sanctuaries being developed will be modeled after the fitness garden where the launch will be hosted, which Riley helped create on a vacant lot next to Above and Beyond, 2942 W Lake St., an East Garfield Park behavioral health and addiction recovery center.

Riley began hosting weekly free community fitness workshops in 2015 at local playgrounds and gardens, and eventually launched classes for Above and Beyond participants. But there was so much demand for fitness activities in Garfield Park that the classes outgrew the indoor space, he said.

The vacant lot next to the center was an eyesore, so Riley decided to host the fitness classes there. Above and Beyond worked with Pull Up The City to turn the lot into a community garden that grows healthy food with a dedicated fitness area and outdoor exercise equipment like pull-up bars for residents to use to work out.

“We’re bringing the community in by facilitating gardening workshops, fitness classes and movement workshops that really bring the community together,” Riley said.

Pull Up The City is now working to turn three more lots into wellness sanctuaries: a second lot at Sacramento Boulevard and Lake Street next to the group’s first fitness garden, a lot at Roosevelt Road and Pulaski Road, and a lot at Chicago Avenue and St. Louis.

The fitness garden at Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center.

The fitness gardens will be free resources to promote not only physical wellness by offering exercise and healthy food opportunities, but also mental wellness by giving residents “safe places for people to de-stress and get connected with nature,” Riley said.

Riley’s fitness programs focus on calisthenics, exercises that build strength, balance and flexibility. After using calisthenics to heal and recover from a painful chronic illness, Riley wanted to teach others the form of exercise since it is easily accessible and doesn’t require equipment or a gym membership.

With the wellness sanctuaries being created across the West Side, others will be able to embark on their own health journeys, Riley said.

“You can take whatever is in your environment, and if you come together as a community, you can build something greater,” Riley said.

You can donate to Pull Up The City’s fundraiser here.

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

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