A group of Pilsen residents held a press conference this morning to protest the sale of a public community garden to John Podmajersky, who intends to build a parking lot in its place. The plot of land, located at S. Canalport and S. Union Ave., has been built into a community garden over the last decade with support from sources as diverse as the Pilsen Alliance, the Openlands Project, Archdiocese of Chicago, Resurrection Project, and many others. Approximately 25 Pilsenites addressed the media and an absent 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis, who earlier in the day had promised to attend.
Francis Cervantes saw a man having a look around the Canalport-Union Garden a few weeks ago. Approaching him, she was quite surprised when he identified himself as the owner of what she knew to be public property. The land was sold on 24 January 2007 for $835,000 ($847,000 if one includes the $12,000 investment Podmajersky made during Solis’ 2006 reelection campaign). Transfers of public property, as well as the rezoning necessary to pave over the area, require public notices so that community residents may have input in the decision. Neither Sra. Cervantes, who lives adjacent to the garden, nor others in the community heard anything about it, nor did they see any notices for public comment on the proposal. A call from CIMC to Alderman Solis’ office seeking clarification on this matter was not returned. Community members fought from 1997-2000 against an earlier effort by Podmajersky to make a parking lot on the location. Rev. Charles Dahm was quoted in 1999 as saying, “As far as I know, John Podmajersky is the only one who doesn’t want it to be green space,” and the campaign to keep it a community garden attracted favorable press in both the Sun-Times and the Tribune. Similar thoughts continue to be echoed by community leader Cuahutémoc Morfín; “The Pilsen community at present has very few green spaces…and intends to fight for those which remain…Our current mayor has been a vocal proponent of a greener city – it’s time to call upon our leaders for real action and commitment rather than lip service.” Rev. Dahm might have overstated the case slightly, given that in January 1997 Alderman Solis and Mr. Podmajersky met with City Asset Manager Cosmo Briatta in another unpublicized attempt to purchase and rezone the property. Podmajersky called the young community garden a “blighted site” in a letter following up on the meeting with Briatta.his homepage.
The Cesar E. Chavez Foundation, in a 1999 letter to Mayor Daley, offered vocal support for the garden project and agreed to a request to have the park’s official name be in memory of the late labor leader. Community member Al DiFranco brought evidence of other early support from the Illinois Department of Transportation, which stated, “we support your efforts to increase green space in Chicago.” The end of that letter was ominous though, reminding Mr. DiFranco that “the ultimate disposition of the properties [in question] are in the hands of the city of Chicago.” After the community effort to preserve the land made significant gains, it appeared that the garden would be preserved and little thought was given to it in the ensuing years. Though the land was sold over five months ago, Mr DiFranco, who was a co-founder of the garden, only found out recently, much like the rest of the community.
Earlier Thursday morning hired landscapers arrived on the scene, perhaps in an effort to placate the neighbors and improve the public image of the developer before the community press conference. Any potential for good will was quickly lost though when the landscapers tore up the bushes and trees planted last year by Maria Zavala and her friends. Sra. Zavala fears the loss of the green barrier between the highway and the community entrance and laments the loss of the public garden as her own yard has little room for planting. With friends she noted that the parking lot is intended to serve apartments in a building that most residents cannot afford, that she characterizes as a further encroachment from University Village. When asked about Mayor Daley’s stated commitment to greening the city, Sra. Zavala simply said, “Where is he today?”
Pilsen residents are asking for solidarity from other communities in Chicago. Those wishing to help should contact Cuahutémoc Morfín at pomorfin (at) hotmail.com or Edgar Ramirez of the Pilsen is not For Sale campaign at quixote27 (at) gmail.com. Contact the author for phone, fax or postal addresses for them.