BACK OF THE YARDS — Edgar Florentino loved visiting Downtown when he was a kid, taking in the colors and textures of the landscaped flora. Then he’d return to Back of the Yards and be disappointed by the lack of vibrancy on the streets, he said.
Two years ago, Florentino started landscaping “hot corners” — streets where there is a lot of gun violence — and is on a mission to beautify and reclaim parkways for neighbors.
Most of Florentino’s work can be found along 48th and 49th streets, between Hoyne and Seeley avenues. His greenery is concentrated on corners, but he’s also gotten permission to garden in the parkways between someone’s home and the street, Florentino said.
“It’s just something beautiful watching something grow,” said Florentino, who now lives in Gage Park. “I’ve had neighbors around the block come out and start gardening [with me].”
Florentino has planted American plum trees, Japanese cherry blossoms, crabapples, cacti, little pine trees and more. Beyond just the aesthetics, Florentino said he wants these corners to be areas where people can gather.
On one of Florentino’s corners at 48th Street and Seeley Avenue, he placed park benches, tree stumps, a chalkboard and a Little Free Library. He said he calls these “Mom Plazas,” a nod to watchful mothers who keep tabs on what’s happening on their block. His goal is to have one on every other corner.
“This is a way of reclaiming public spaces as I turn them into green spaces,” Florentino said. “I think it could work better than any blue light camera that has been put up on our corners. My intention is to bring people out and make them comfortable, make them think they could own these corners, these parkways.”
Growing up in Back of the Yards, Florentino is intimately familiar with the violence that affects the neighborhood, he said. He said it was difficult to avoid gang conflict just waiting at the bus stop heading to school.
Beautifying the residential streets and intersections is Florentino’s way of helping people feel safer and encourage potential aggressors to “think twice.” But it’s also an example of how Florentino changed the direction of his life.
“I was once a victim turned aggressor, and now I’ve re-made myself, looked at what I’ve done and what I’m doing, how I feel, how I think as a changed man from who I was,” Florentino said.
Florentino said he’s a self-taught horticulturist. He learned everything about gardening and tending to his plants from reading, watching YouTube videos — and a bit from observing his mom grow tomatoes, cucumbers and watermelons as a kid.
Florentino also created a bilingual gardening group on Facebook called Jardineros Y Jardineras De Chicago to provide a space for local Spanish-speaking gardeners to get inspiration and seek advice from one another.
Florentino said he balances his gardening passion with working full-time as a line cook. He hopes to attend college to study horticulture or become a chef, he said.
Right now, Florentino’s gardening is a one-man operation. Everything he plants or uses to adorn the green spaces comes from him buying it or it being donated, he said. He launched a GoFundMe last year to help offset the cost of his work, and he hopes to one day have people volunteer their time with him.
Florentino said his gardening is centered in Back of the Yards, but he hopes to spread his work across the South and Southwest sides.
“I want to do so much more, but there’s just so much I can do [alone],” Florentino said. “If there’s people willing to help me, I will gladly take that help and just keep doing what I do.”
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