Tuesday, September 30, 2008

An experiment in global networking

Photo by Gordon Walek

A group of Chicagoans traveled to Quito, Ecuador, two weeks ago to learn about the Latin American phenomenon of ciclovias, the closing of city roads on Sundays to open them up for cyclists, pedestrians and healthy family activities.

Thousands turn out for these events in Quito; Bogota, Colombia; Guadalajara, Mexico; and other cities, and this weekend Chicago is getting in on the action with its first Sunday Parkways event, running from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on five miles of the city's boulevard system. See the route here.

How do you learn more about how these things work? Going to Quito for the Third Annual conference of the Ciclovias Unidas de Las Americas was a great way to start. I'm told that the Chicago contingent of community leaders, biking activists, police and city officials got some seat-of-the-pants experience on borrowed bikes, and made plenty of new contacts. (The trip was funded by the MacArthur Foundation's International Connections Fund, for this very purpose.)

But we want to keep things going, so we've launched a global networking experiment with a web site that allows anyone who wants to join in and post related videos, photos, discussion and questions. Check it out here, and please sign up and start contributing, including your impressions and videos or photos from the Sunday Parkways events on Oct. 5 and 26. Join us.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Taking Science to the Streets

These young men from Reavis Elementary spent their summer learning to make model amusement park rides, among other interesting activities. It was an engaging way to learn something about engineering and maybe a little physics, too.

Putting science activities into after-school and summer programs is a growing trend. Test pressures on elementary schools have focused teachers very narrowly on reading and math. Chicago high schools are strapped for the time to do real lab work. Last year, After School Matters piloted a science37 program in two high schools, Lindblom and Foreman, and is looking for more school partners.

Last week, Chicago hosted the first national conference on science outside school hours. Lots of museum educators were there, from Chicago and around the country. One thread of the discussion was how to reach the people who don't come to museums.

One idea from elsewhere that struck me as applicable here in Chicago was the community science workshops being run in different parts of California. How would you like your neighborhood to have a sciencemobile like Fresno's? It's a mobile lab with tools, materials and 10 Internet workstations that travels around the city giving people a chance to make cool things and learn the science behind them. In 2007, the sciencemobile served 50,000 people.

Fresno, Watsonville, Oakland and other California communities also have dedicated spaces with materials, tools and smart staff to help kids and families build projects of their own design. Part of what makes them special is they're located in the neighborhoods where the people are. Many are run through park districts and have line-item funding in city budgets. For more on how community science workshops operate, see this article.

These community science workshops got their start almost 20 years ago in one man's garage in San Francisco's Mission District. After expanding across California, in 2001 the National Science Foundation awarded a grant to help them scale up across the country. You can now find community science workshops in Boston, Houston, Miami, Newark, New Orleans and Washington, DC.

I think Chicago could use some, too. Don't you?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Growing Home Featured in Chicago Reporter

The latest issue of the Chicago Reporter has an article on the lack of access to organic produce in African-American neighborhoods. It leads with the exception to this pattern: Growing Home's work in Englewood. It also talks about efforts to open an organic grocery store on Chicago's West Side.

“It’s easier to find a semi-automatic weapon in our communities than it is to find a tomato, much less an organic tomato,” said LaDonna Redmond, an Austin-based food activist now working on a project to open an organic grocery story in West Garfield Park in Spring 2009.

On Huffington Post's newish Chicago page, Mari Gallagher explains more about food deserts and the challenges grocers face. Good reading.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Soggy Tourists in Our Own Town

Last Saturday, 21 of us braved the record-breaking rain for the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation's Veggie Bike and Dine event. The event raised money for CBF and for NeighborSpace, which manages land for community gardens across Chicago. The event wound through a number of NCP neighborhoods and got me thinking about the potential for events like this to help neighborhoods snag more tourists in their own town.

We met up in Pilsen, at the Xochiquetzal Peace Garden, created by Whittier School. Signs in English and Spanish pointed out herbs like manzanilla/chamomile. Soy Organic, Pilsen's only organic grocery store, provided a yummy breakfast shake to rev up our metabolisms. We came from Ukrainian Village, West Loop, Oak Park and even the south suburbs, just to name a few.

It wasn't too wet on our way from Pilsen to North Lawndale, by way of Little Village and the Farragut High School parking lot. We arrived in time to watch our snack being made at the Green Youth Farm at 3539 W. Ogden, near the Pink Line Central Park stop. There we had salsa fresh from the garden: red and yellow tomatoes, garlic, cucumber all picked and chopped before our eyes. Teen tour guides from Manley and Collins Academy high schools showed us what they'd been growing all summer in the extensive network of tall raised beds built back in 2005. The salsa was the best I've had all summer, hands down.

Afterwards, we were treated to a special tour of a recently redone community garden nearby. At this point, it was pouring pretty hard and my vision narrowed to the bike in front of me, so I still don't know where in North Lawndale we ended up, but we got to see a newly paved garden featuring pear trees with fruit ready to pick.

Later, we biked through giant puddles in Garfield Park and admired the Conservatory's demonstration gardens. Finally, we visited El Yunque Community Garden in Humboldt Park and Frankie Machine Garden in Ukrainian Village. In the end, we all dried out and enjoyed vegan pizzas at Crust: Eat Real.

All the way along, people on the street cheered and waved at the sight of the soggy cyclists. We had plenty of room for guests at the afterparty, since about half the bikers didn't show, so some of the stalwart community gardeners who turned out to show us their work came and joined us for pizza.

Events like these, whether a 12-mile bike tour or a chamber of commerce restaurant crawl, really help outsiders get the feel of a neighborhood. Here's to sunnier days and more bikers in the group next year!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The value of community events

Exercise time at En Movimiento in Humboldt Park.
Photos by Eric Young Smith.

As summer fades, a brief reflection what value comes from all the summer festivals, b-ball tournaments and events like En Movimiento, the fitness-fests put on by the Greater Humboldt Park Community of Wellness.

What value? First, the street time allows people to run into people they know, touch base, catch up on news and information that must pump like blood through a community to maintain its health. Second, the crowds create, in most cases, a safe and invigorating environment where many types of people can mix and maybe get to know each other a bit, even if only from a distance. At the Glenwood Arts Festival the other weekend in Rogers Park, the crowd was remarkably diverse and more than a bit rough around the edges. It was a pleasure to be part of that scene.

And that's number three: Public events provide a bridge from one month or year to the next, offering opportunities for members of a community to come together over time. At that arts fest my wife and I spoke to a couple we've known for 25 years – not friends, really, but committed neighbors – and our occasional chats at block parties or street events provide a continuity that is important and affirming. We are long-term partners, after all, in the health of our neighborhood.

Finally, when I watched the teenage boys and girls sauntering off the school buses at the Hoops in the Hood Cross-City Finals on August 23, I couldn't help but think about what it meant to them to be traveling across the city to an unknown park to represent their neighborhood in a sporting event. The younger kids were clearly pumped up, excited and laughing; the older teens showed their intensity with tough "game faces" that only slowly broke open to smiles later, out on the court and after the games. Those young people will remember that event for a long time to come.

On that note, there are a few more opportunities to catch some of this action. This weekend, on 79th Street at Racine, check out the Third Annual 79th Street Renaissance Festival sponsored by the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp. It will be their biggest and best to date. And on October 5 and 26, the Sunday Parkways program will debut with boulevards closed to traffic so that neighbors can bike, walk or just hang out, being together. My wife and I will be there on our tandem.