African Heritage Garden

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Year Established: 2001
Local Leaders: Blanche Suggs & Blanche Cook
Community Group: North Lawndale Small Grants Human Development
NeighborSpace Partnership: 2001

One of the African Heritage Garden’s most important features is so subtle; it is often overlooked by the first-time visitor surveying the vast corner space. Attention is easily drawn to the garden’s thriving vegetable beds filled with watermelon, tomatoes and kale, or one of two wooden trellises covered in flowers during the late summer. However, it is the large bed of flowers in the shape of the African continent that defines this space as much more than a community garden – it also serves as a community space with events that provide a direct link to cultural information and ancestral pride for the predominantly African-American North Lawndale community.

This garden once was four vacant lots filled with cars and rubbish. Under the guidance of North Lawndale Small Grants it was transformed into a garden filled with marigolds in the shape of a map of Africa and a wide variety of perennials, grasses, roses, trees and vegetables.

Prior to its transformation into a garden, the five-lot area served as a haven for gangs and drug dealers. Through a consortium of local and city-wide organizations, including NeighborSpace, the land was acquired and a plan developed to turn the area into a dynamic green space that could be utilized by the entire community. Before ground was even broken, a community-wide research project was conducted to determine the relationships between African history, art and culture, and those found among African-Americans in North Lawndale. The findings from this study eventually took root in the development of the African Heritage Garden, and are visible throughout its overall design, the plants that grow there and numerous artistic features. And, in 2005, the African Heritage Garden was recognized citywide as an “official” place of culture and community. “In July 2005, the Chicago Council of Elders blessed the African Heritage Garden with a traditional African Ceremony,” said community leader Blanche Suggs. “This Ceremony requires a select group of community elders to give permission to establish (the garden) as a family place of enjoyment, education and cultural awareness. We reached out to the entire Lawndale community and the ceremony was truly amazing.”

In Blanche’ Words: “It takes a village to raise a child and a community of gardeners to show the need to preserve the community’s growth. There’s nothing better than seeing the Earth return your hard work in beautiful flowers and a bountiful harvest of fresh vegetables.”

Best Practice Idea: Network both inside and outside the community. According to Blanche, the African Heritage Garden benefits in a number of different ways – from publicity to materials donations – from the relationships the gardeners have forged with like-minded organizations throughout the Chicago metropolitan area.