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Martha Itulya-Omollo and her children help tend one of Woodlawn’s community gardens. The First Presbyterian Church, which owns the land for the 65th & Woodlawn and Kumunda gardens, may close the community plots. | Photo provided by 65th & Woodlawn Garden Committee

Community gardens face uncertain fate as South Side church contemplates closure

SHARE Community gardens face uncertain fate as South Side church contemplates closure
SHARE Community gardens face uncertain fate as South Side church contemplates closure

Growing up in Kenya, Martha Itulya-Omollo says that everyone in her town had a plot of land to feed their families. When she moved to Woodlawn in 1992, a half-block from the 65th & Woodlawn community garden, she was excited to share the excitement of gardening with her three children.

Blocks away from the proposed site of the Obama Presidential Center, Itulya-Omollo and other gardeners who have plots at the 65th & Woodlawn Community Garden, at 6500 S. Woodlawn Ave., and Kumunda Gardens, at 6435 S. Kimbark Ave., could now lose the fruits of their labor if a nearby church decides to shut them down.

Martha Itulya-Omollo shown with her children. | Photo provided by 65th & Woodlawn Garden Committee

Martha Itulya-Omollo shown with her children. | Photo provided by 65th & Woodlawn Garden Committee

“It was shocking and extremely sad to hear that the gardens may close,” Itulya-Omollo said. “The gardens make the neighborhood better because they give a space to kids and families to come together and get to know each other and grow fruits and vegetables together. I don’t know what I’d do in terms of alternatives.”

Though the growing season is already in full swing, members of the gardening committee were first alerted to the potential closure in late February by the leadership of the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago, which owns the land. An official notice from the gardening committee was given to the gardening community March 17.

A petition on Change.org started by some in the gardening community had garnered over 1,400 signatures by Saturday.

Since then, the “question” of closing the gardens “has been reopened,” Marilyn Krogh, the clerk for the Session, the church’s group of elected lay leaders. A decision may be announced after Easter.

Meg Mass, who has helped manage the gardens since 2013, says community members weren’t given an explanation as to why the garden would close, or if the decision was final.

“For those who have started gardening, it’s unclear what will happen to their crops,” Mass said. “We haven’t been told what we’ve done wrong. We’ve been told they don’t intend to sell the land, but there hasn’t been much of an explanation beyond that.”

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The move would deal a blow to both fresh food options and a legacy of planting in the South Side community, gardeners say. Every year, Mass says, gardeners produce fruits and vegetables for themselves and their families and around 1.5 tons of food goes to the church’s food pantry annually.

The fate of the two gardens is now in the hands of the Session.

“We care about the gardens and we’re trying to do our best by Woodlawn,” Krogh said.

Itulya-Omollo says that the community garden provides something to her children and the community that would be hard to replicate.

“When you see who they serve, and the value they have and how that goes beyond community I think you see why they deserve to remain open,” Itulya-Omollo said. “That’s why we moved to the city. My kids get to know their neighbors, they get to make friends, they get to be part of something bigger.

“You can’t get that in the suburbs — there’s a life here they couldn’t get anywhere else.”

Martha Itulya-Omollo’s baby enjoys an afternoon at a Woodlawn community garden. | Photo provided by 65th & Woodlawn Garden Committee

Martha Itulya-Omollo’s baby enjoys an afternoon at a Woodlawn community garden. | Photo provided by 65th & Woodlawn Garden Committee

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