GRAND BOULEVARD — Amandilo Cuzan had just moved to the neighborhood when he met Johnnie Owens back in 2009.
Cuzan, eager to hit the ground running and get involved with his new neighborhood, spotted a notice in the Chicago Defender about a community meeting and decided to attend. There, he met Owens, who led the meeting and shared his plan of turning a long-neglected vacant lot into farmland.
Cuzan, who now runs the Bronzeville Alliance Facebook group, was immediately impressed with Owens’ determination and drive — and the two became instant friends.
“When we sat down to talk, we realized we connected on a lot of different levels,” Cuzan said. “He understood that you can’t just deal with housing; you’ve still got to deal with education, with employment, with economics. … All of these work together to build a strong community.”
The Tribune reported Owens, 65, was fatally shot Aug. 17 trying to protect his family during a home invasion in suburban Hazel Crest. He is survived by his wife and two teenage sons.
Owens got the now-beloved neighborhood garden in the 4100 block of South Calumet Avenue started in 2009 with the help of the Center for New Horizons and a lot of hustle.
“Farming and gardening is an involved process. Growing anything, doing it properly in a productive way. We had to learn a lot, but we consulted a lot of experts in the neighborhood, like Michael Howard who runs Eden Place Nature Center,” Cuzan said. “But there’s nothing like experience.”
After a bit of trial and error — and lots of YouTube farming videos — they were able to get pretty good crops off the ground. Soon, people were coming to them for advice.
But challenges emerged, Cuzan said.
Right as the team hit their stride, funding for the farm was pulled and they were forced to move the garden. But Owens never gave up.
He found a larger lot directly across the street. Working with nonprofit urban land trust NeighborSpace and Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), the Bronzeville Neighborhood Garden was born.
Eventually, the funding and the volunteers came — like David Welch, who had been running a community garden at his church when he crossed paths with Owens in 2011.
Welch spoke with Owens the night before he was killed. It was just an ordinary conversation about farm business — Owens was picking up paychecks for the interns and running other errands — but Welch said Owens was happy about things turning around for the farm after a hard year.
Now he, Cuzan and the team of workers and volunteers — along with Owens’ wife, Rosalyn — will continue the work that he so loved.
“This is a really special space. It’s like crossing the Field of Dreams. … We all share the same vision of providing food to an underserved community,” Welch said. “We’ll still here, and we’re going to be here.”
Hazel Crest Police did not return requests for comment. Cuzan said no one has been arrested in the killing.
Visitation for Owens is 2-5 p.m. Sunday at Leaks Funeral Home, 18400 S. Pulaski Road in Country Club Hills. A funeral is 9-11 a.m. Monday.
Those who wish to honor Owens are encouraged to donate to the Bronzeville Neighborhood Farm’s GoFundMe campaign.
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