Radical [Re]construction of Community: Food, Art, and Regenerative Placemaking on Chicago’s South Side

November 28, 2017

By: Jia Lok Pratt, Sweet Water Foundation

Over the past several years, Chicago has been highlighted in the media as a ‘tale of two cities’: one of them safe and prosperous, the other dangerous and poor—and both of them growing more so. Nowhere in Chicago are the crises more prevalent and the social exclusion and marginalization more profound than on the South and West Sides. After generations of disinvestment, these communities are buckling under the weight of a complicated and interconnected layering of crises of a failing economy, collapsing infrastructure and urban decay, environmental degradation, seemingly perpetual cycles of increasing violent crimes, epidemics of preventable chronic diseases, and an ever-increasing food insecurity.

Amidst these crises, a radical [re]construction of community is underway at the Perry Ave Commons on Chicago’s South Side, fueled by food, art, and the practice of Regenerative Placemaking.


Growing Food: A Radical Act

Growing food is, by definition, radical.


Food grows from the root of a plant. Food reconnects people to their origin - to the Earth and to each other. When grown in so-called ‘blighted’ communities, food is not only radical for these reasons, but also because it represents an extreme shift in habit, knowledge, policy, power, and place.  


When art - the conscious use of skill and creative imagination in the production of aesthetic objects - is blended with the radical act of growing food, the possibilities of community building and neighborhood transformation are endless.

It is through the lens of food + art that Sweet Water Foundation is manifesting the radical reconstruction of community on Chicago’s South Side via the eco-logical practice of Regenerative Placemaking. Regenerative Placemaking is a creative and regenerative social justice method, that creates safe and inspiring spaces and curates healthy, intergenerational communities that transform the ecology of once-blighted neighborhoods. Sweet Water Foundation’s flagship site, known as the Perry Ave Commons, is a living demonstration of this practice in action.  

In 2014, when Sweet Water Foundation was first granted access to the land by the City of Chicago, the four contiguous blocks that now make up the Perry Ave Commons were nothing more than littered vacant lots with a speckle of homes, most of which were abandoned. Like far too many parcels of land on Chicago’s South Side, the land was scarred; its emptiness serving as a vivid reminder of institutional racism, erasure, and disinvestment.

Enter Sweet Water Foundation and the transformative seeds of the radical and regenerative practice of urban agriculture integrated with art and driven by community residents. The Perry Ave Commons now boasts more than 4 acres of urban farm land, a community garden, and a foreclosed house turned community wellness hub – known as the Think-Do House. The transformation was fueled by Sweet Water Foundation’s Apprenticeship and Outreach Program (AOP), an intensive education and career intervention through which local youth, alongside mentors and elders, transform ‘blighted’ spaces into economically and ecologically productive and sustainable community assets that produce skilled workers, art, and locally-grown produce that feeds more than 200 residents weekly.

The Perry Ave Commons challenges the standard reductive formula of gentrification, which seeks to gain short-term return on investment without regard to the longer-term sociological and ecological implications to the urban ecology, including people. The resulting aesthetics of gentrification reflect the process of erasure, amnesia and forced-forgetting of the culture that once defined the community.  Through Regenerative Placemaking, the Perry Ave Commons, instead, offers an inclusive, art-inspired and agriculture-fed approach to neighborhood development, creating an aesthetic of inclusion and remembering married to the concepts of repurposing, re-imagining, and re-storying.


The Thought Barn: A Radical Act of Community

With the support of funders, like ArtPlace America, the evolution of the Perry Ave Commons continues. The latest element of radical reconstruction took place in September when a timber frame barn was raised on the Perry Ave Community Farm. The barn, known as the Thought Barn, is the cornerstone project of Sweet Water Foundation’s National Creative Placemaking Award and the first, ground-up architectural building developed by Sweet Water Foundation.  

Despite record-breaking heat of 95 degrees, more than 300 community members and partners attended Sweet Water Foundation’s Annual Harvest Celebration + Barn Raising to witness what is is believed to be the first timber frame barn raised in the City of Chicago in more than a century. In the spirit of a traditional barn raising, more than 50 volunteers joined staff and expert tradesmen from Trillium Dell Timberworks to manually raise the barn.

The Thought Barn now stands proudly as a symbol of healing, possibility, and restoration of community; redefining the purpose of a barn in the 21st century as a place in which we celebrate life. Upon completion, the Thought Barn will bring a visual and performing arts, reflection, and community gathering space to the heart of the Perry Ave Commons.

More to come...There GROWS the neighborhood!