An award-winning community garden in the booming West Loop is chock-full of vegetables, herbs, sunflowers — and rats.
The rats have overrun the garden, neighbors say. Videos of two rats — climbing the stalks of the sunflowers and dangling from the head of the plants — drew hundreds of comments after they were posted on neighborhood Facebook pages this week.
“This is a big problem for an otherwise clean neighborhood, one that gets national and worldwide attention because of its restaurant and burgeoning tech scene,” said Craig Isbell, who has lived in the West Loop for the past two decades and called the garden an “eyesore.”
Others, though, said they weren’t surprised by the situation, considering the garden’s urban location, the increased development in the West Loop and Chicago’s ongoing problem with rodents.
The problem has caught the attention of Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez’s office, which announced Thursday that the garden — at Sangamon and Monroe streets — will be closed “indefinitely” so the lot can be inspected. Rebecca Evans, a spokeswoman for Sigcho-Lopez, said that the alderman’s office received numerous complaints from community members.
“We just need to make sure that there isn’t a public health risk,” Evans said. Gardeners continued to use the property Thursday evening, however.
The garden, which features dozens of kiddie swimming pools that have been converted into planters, will be reopened once the problem is addressed.
“The ultimate goal is for [the garden] to open back up to the community,” she said.
The Department of Streets and Sanitation will put bait traps in the area — but not in the actual garden, said spokeswoman Marjani Williams.
“As this is private property, the Department will not place rodenticide inside the community garden,” she said.
Despite the rats’ presence in the garden, city officials said rat complaints were down this year, at least through the end of June. The city had received 13,500 rodent complaints through June 27, compared to 16,500 in 2017. The department could not immediately provide data from July or specific data for the West Loop.
At least two rats could be seen on the property late Thursday afternoon, scrambling throughout the vegetation.
Lisa Tintner, who lives close to the garden, said that if the gardeners can’t control the rats, it needs to go.
“It’s gross, yes, but it’s more concerning about the diseases they carry,” Tintner said of the rats. “It’s a health hazard.”
Tintner said she’s not against community gardens but is concerned for people who grow food in the lot and take it home. Tintner said she would feel the same way if she saw rats running around an alley behind a restaurant.
“If it’s drawing rats, it’s got to go,” she said.
Since the rat sightings began, Tintner said she won’t walk her dog near the garden or in the nearby park, concerned about the spread of leptospirosis, a disease transmitted by rat urine.
A spokeswoman for the city’s department of public health said the agency neither inspects nor sets standards for food grown in community gardens because they aren’t considered food establishments. The agency reported no instances of people being sickened from food grown in community gardens and recommended Food and Drug Administration guidelines for washing produce.
Community garden board member Moshe Tamssot said organizers had put out pest control in the last couple of weeks. He pointed to skyrocketing development that has brought more people, pets and garbage to the area. He also said rodents could be coming from nearby Mary Bartelme Park, which has a dog park. And, he said, the sunflowers were also a culprit.
“We had a whole bunch of sunflowers come into the season, which attracted a few,” he acknowledged.
He called the hubbub over the situation overblown.
“Now it’s like we’ve become the rat capital of the world,” he said. ”There’s the occasional one that passes through, but that’s city life.”
Not all neighbors were concerned. Gardeners flitted in and out of the lot in the afternoon, tending to their plots, which included everything from pinto beans to peppers.
“I haven’t seen any rats here,” said Ashley Hoffman, 34. Even if she had, complaining doesn’t seem warranted because there are rats “all over the city.”
Hoffman said nearby construction in the 800 block of West Madison Street, could be “displacing” the rats and causing them to gravitate toward the garden.
Said another gardener: “What’s a community garden without rats?”