The Goose Island overlook garden on Oct. 31, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

GOOSE ISLAND — Wedged between car dealerships and an under-construction distribution center just south of Division Street, a sliver of green space marked by rows of vegetable beds and native plants butts up against the Chicago River.

Known today as the Goose Island Overlook Garden, the 1.6-acre city-owned lot at 1111 N. Elston Ave. has a varied industrial past. A former boat yard, it was once connected to the Peoples Gas site that stood for years across the street.

Since the city acquired the space two decades ago, it’s mostly sat empty with an uncertain future as the neighborhood grows and develops.

In 2016, planters were installed to accommodate potential gardening. But nothing really took off there until the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when neighbors in search of outdoor activities started tending to the beds and planting vegetables and flowers.

“It’s pretty unique to the area,” said Chloe Rubinowicz, who lives nearby and is one of the garden’s lead volunteers. “There’s not too many walkable parks or green areas; it’s a very industrial area. We’ve got car dealerships pretty much everywhere. And now the Peoples Gas [site] sold and they’re building that massive distribution center.”

After Rubinowicz and her boyfriend began working at the garden in 2020, they connected with neighbors who stopped by to weed, plant or just enjoy the strip of uninterrupted riverfront. They soon launched a website, held cleanups and created a reservation system for people to claim a garden plot.

Rubinowicz and other volunteers also connected with local group Urban Rivers, which began advising them on potential site plans and future environmental remediation.

Now, organizers are trying to legitimize the work they’ve done by signing a lease with the city to allow on-site gardening and other programs. Terms could be in place by next year, a planning department spokesperson told Block Club last week.

Volunteers are taking a two-pronged approach to their long-term plans for the garden: They hope to create a model for environmental restoration along the Chicago River while building a permanent community space.

“It’s a sliver of something unique that is very, very hard to recreate,” said Urban Rivers Director Nick Wesley, who sits on the garden’s board. “To be able to turn this into something where it’s woven into the fabric as this whole area changes and develops … I think that this thing has the opportunity to stand on its own as this unique public space.”

The Goose Island overlook garden on Oct. 31, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

‘It Just Kind Of Naturally Happened’

The land now home to the Goose Island Overlook Garden was acquired by the city in 2003 thanks to $800,000 in grant funds from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Plans percolated for years to create a permanent public green space there. In 2006, preliminary park plans were completed, only to be tabled until the Peoples Gas site across the street — which shared underground infrastructure with the lot — could undergo environmental remediation, planning department spokesperson Peter Strazzabosco said.

That finally happened in 2022, when a logistics company acquired the site on the western side of Elston to build the multi-level distribution facility under construction.

In the meantime, spurts of gardening activity did take place on the lot. GreenCorps, the city’s green industry job training program, constructed planters and a pergola on the site in 2016.

But those efforts mostly petered out until Rubinowicz and others began stopping by during the pandemic. There was no formal organization or call-to-arms — people just started planting, she said.

“We cleared a bed and then plants just started showing up. So people knew the area existed, but they just didn’t do all the work to get them ready. But as soon as they were ready, people started planting,” Rubinowicz said. “And from there, you’d see a tomato bush, you’d see a pepper bush, but you wouldn’t always see people. And then slowly people started interacting and meeting each other. … It just kind of naturally happened.”

That’s how neighbor Kevin Klein started hanging around the garden. He lives nearby and in 2020 was drawn to the mostly empty space with expansive views of Downtown.

“It’s a big, open, green space that we don’t really have in Chicago. You have parks, but those always get filled with people. This was just an empty lot that could be really nice, but just wasn’t for some reason,” said Klein, who also sits on the garden’s board. “So I wanted to make it nicer. It was cool and near my house and I was like, ‘Let’s just make make it a little better.’ And that was really it.”

The Goose Island overlook garden on Oct. 31, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Along the way, volunteers connected with Wesley and Phil Nicodemus from Urban Rivers, which is overseeing development of the “Wild Mile” floating eco-park on the other side of Goose Island, among other projects.

As garden organizers rolled out a reservation system for plots and started a small butterfly garden on the north end of the lot, they realized they were still operating in a gray area without official permission from the city.

After consulting with Urban Rivers, Rubinowicz and other volunteers decided to organize as a nonprofit in spring 2022.

“We got to a point of ‘OK, let’s make this a nonprofit.’ Let’s try to make this more legitimate because we’re obviously there on a place that we probably weren’t supposed to be in,” she said.

The group is now in the process of acquiring a lease for the space, which could be in place by spring. City Council approval would eventually be required, too.

“A potential renewable lease is being considered by the city that would enable on-site gardening and related programming that is consistent with other area improvements. Urban Rivers is providing assistance,” Strazzabosco wrote in an email last week.

Wesley said the nonprofit status will help the volunteers as they continue through that process.

“From our view, one of the things that I think was great that the group did is get organized, get legitimate, have an entity, have something that can hold permits and insurance and everything else that the city needs to be able to trust that entity to really take care of the space,” Wesley said.

A piece of building ornamentation sits in the Goose Island overlook garden on Oct. 31, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The Goose Island overlook garden on Oct. 31, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Ongoing Stewardship

While a lease is being worked out for the nonprofit to take over as the garden’s steward, the land is still in need of extensive environmental remediation and site improvements.

That will require excavation and other construction work, with funding sources to be determined, according to the city and volunteers.

“Seawall reconstruction costs alone will likely exceed $2 million,” Strazzabosco said.

It may take time, but the cleanup process could be one the city learns from and repeats at similar sites along the river, Nicodemus said. Once the work is completed, the property could eventually be transferred to the Park District for permanent management.

“The stuff that gets done here is probably what gets used as a model elsewhere, throughout the river system,” Nicodemus said. “There are a lot of areas that have been heavily burdened by pollution over the years and starting to deal with that legacy rather than just kind of covering it up is an important thing, but it also requires a good bit of trial and error.”

The Chicago skyline as seen from the Goose Island overlook garden on Oct. 31, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

In the short term, volunteers said they hope to remove invasive species along the river while expanding awareness of the garden. They recently installed a sign with a QR code directing people to their website.

“It’s huge for our neighborhood, and it’s been really nice in bringing people together,” Rubinowicz said. “And so I want to explore the future of that and see where we could take it.”

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