#187: The Five-Foot Garden at Avers

July 8th, 2013

The birdbath was the one thing people weren’t supposed to take from the five-foot garden at Avers and Lawrence.

A sense of peace, a sense of joy, a sense of pride in the community, sure. Even the chives, tomatoes and spearmint planted in the little grassy area between street and sidewalk were there to vanish.

“Just for people to take,” said Nancy Leginski, 73, of the Jensen Community Organization. “There are hungry people in Albany Park.”

But the birdbath wasn’t there to be taken. So that’s what someone did.

“I think they probably just picked it up in the middle of the night and put it in their truck,” Leginski said as she sunk a trowel into the Avers dirt to pluck out weeds.

The missing birdbath is not the first setback for the three-year-old garden at Avers, one of three similarly tiny gardens the Jensen Community Organization planted along Lawrence Avenue in what would otherwise be those useless five-foot slips of grass between street and sidewalk.

Once, the city dug the Avers garden up to do work there. Once, it was Peoples Gas.

So setbacks are nothing new. Nor are theft and vandalism. Nor is gathing a dwindling, aging group of volunteers on weekends to weed, water and pick beer bottles and cigarette butts from the micro gardens along Lawrence.

“I remember this neighborhood back in the ’40s and people would throw their cigarette butts on the ground just like now,” said Leginski, who lives in the home her parents bought in 1941. “It wasn’t any different then.”

The group has planted four micro gardens so far — three along Lawrence and another five-foot, grass-slip garden at the founder’s former house. They’re planning two more back along Lawrence.

Then they want to tackle the trainyard at Kimball, “Turn it from an ugly place to a pretty one,” Leginski said.

Leginski is the de facto leader of the Jensen Community Organization, but still calls herself the treasurer. The president is and always will be founder Florence Stoller, who now lives in a nearby nursing home.

“As long as she’s alive, she’s president,” Leginski said.

A new volunteer named Pamela said she found out about the group from her Realtor. She’s been in Albany Park about two months, she said.

As Pamela told her story and flicked cigarette butts out of the garden with a trowel, Leginski crossed the busy Lawrence Avenue to help fellow volunteer Barbara Morton, who uses a cane, back across the street.

Morton and Leginski have been part of the Jensen Community Organization since it started 22 years ago.

“We were in our 40s, 50s and 60s,” Leginski said. “The same people are now in our 60s, 70s and 80s. We need young people.”

Morton struck up a conversation with two young men passing by. Soon, she and the other two ladies of the Jensen group had names, a phone number and two pledged volunteers. I asked Morton if she did that often.

“God did that,” Morton said, giving a little smile and pointing up in the air.

Morton sees the neighborhood getting better, which she credits in part to landlords having more of a stake in the community.

“Before, it was suburban people renting (apartments) out to whoever,” she said. “Owner-residents make such a big difference psychologically.”

As Pamela weeded and Leginski dug up a circle of earth, Morton said she felt the gangs that used to haunt Albany Park, covering its alleys and storefronts with tags and signs, were going away.

“Oh, Barbara,” Leginski said, shaking her head and dusting herself off as she stood. “There are a dozen active gangs.”

They are keeping at it, these ladies of the Jensen Community Organization. They’re keeping at it with trowels and birdbaths, with tomatoes for whoever wants them and beauty for any who see it. They’re keeping at it despite the cigarette butts and the vandalism and the gangs.

Actually, that last one’s not quite true. They are keeping at it despite the gangs, but also for them, hoping the little five-foot gardens of food and beauty help in some small way to make people see the neighborhood as a place to share, not turf to own.

“We’re trying to change their mindset,” Leginski said.

The missing birdbath was old, not much of a loss, Leginski said as she cut a hole in the donated liner under where the the birdbath once stood. She’s lying, of course. You can tell from her voice how much she liked it.

They’ll plant irises and petunias on the spot the birdbath once stood. The gardeners persist. Always.

But there is still room in that tiny little garden for a birdbath.

… maybe one of stone or metal, something heavy enough that it won’t be plucked away in the night.

… maybe something for birds and sun and a little bit of beauty in a neighborhood where people have been tossing their cigarette butts since the ’40s.

… maybe something donated, if I’m not being too subtle.

“Oh, can you put the word out for a birdbath?” Leginski asked me, perking up again after her lie about “no big loss.”

Who could say no to that?

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You are currently reading #187: The Five-Foot Garden at Avers by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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