Austin celebrates garden that honors two residents who fought for the community

June 16, 2017
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More than 30 West Side residents, police officers and elected officials celebrated the community garden at the intersection of Chicago and Mayfield earlier this week.

The Ed Bailey-Leola Spann community garden honors the two now-deceased West Siders for their lifelong activism and dedication to reducing crime in Austin, said Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx.

Spann, a member of the Northwest Austin Council, introduced after-school programs to Austin and led the legal battle to shut down a local drug den, while Bailey, president of the South Austin Coalition Community Council, was known for his efforts against drug dealers on streets.

The garden recognizes the diverse partnerships and community engagement on Chicago’s West Side, Foxx said.

“What this garden represents is working with the community along with law enforcement,” she said. “By investing in the planting, the seeds, we are letting the community flourish.”

The garden is one of the four revitalization programs led by Foxx and her four community justice centers across Chicago. Each of the West, South, North and Central Community Justice Centers has collaborated with local aldermen, police officers and community organizations to build a garden in an empty space – or revitalize space like the one in Austin.

The Ed Bailey-Leola Spann garden was first dedicated to the two activists in September 2014 with a planting ceremony organized by the Austin African American Networking Association, according to AustinTalks.

Next to the garden is the “Austin Is Doing Something (AIDS)” mural, which was jointly commissioned by the community and AIDS Foundation of Chicago. The aim was to raise awareness about the epidemic as well as spur more development along Chicago Avenue.

The Austin community garden is the only project that memorializes community leaders, said Brittney Burns, an assistant state’s attorney who works at the Community Justice Center West. She noted the garden has involved many parts of the community, including Austin ministers, the Chicago Fire Department, Chicago Police Department and local businesses.

The area used to be a park with beautiful plants before it became run down several years ago, said Mary Apple, who also works at the State’s Attorney’s Community Justice Center West.

“Just a week ago, it was overrun with weeds,” she said. But now the weeds have been cleared away and the soil refreshed.

It took only a couple of months for the garden to become real, said Foxx, because they had “so many great partners who willingly stepped up and helped out,” including police officers from the 15th and 25th Police Districts.

Austin and Oak Park police officers have been volunteering at the garden the last week, bringing their own materials like mulch.

“We’ve been helping with the decoration and the planting,” said Curtis Blaydes, a 15th District police officer.

“It shows the community that we care,” said Blaydes, who also put up balloons along a nearby fence. “We are dedicating this garden to the activists and supporting the hard work they put into the community.”

He said his experience with the community garden has been meaningful.

“This is different from our everyday [work]. It is more enjoyable to work with the community from a more positive aspect than how the police [usually] serve the community.

“It shows we are trying to do something different.”

The garden will host various community activities, such as farm-to-table programs.

“We will have classes with police officers and let them teach the kids how to cook vegetables,” said Wendy Cornejo, who helped to organize Monday afternoon’s event, adding the idea is also to raise awareness about the West Side’s food desert.

It’s important for Austin children and teens to learn to cultivate yards and plant something in the community garden that they can eventually, Apple said.

“I think it’s a healthy thing to watch something grow rather than being destroyed,” she said. “It tells the kids there’s something good and positive in the community that they are part of.”

And having programs that have police officers get together with kids, she added, helps restore trust between police and the community.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro said the garden is a great example of West Siders working together as a community.

“This is an opportunity to not only recognize the great work against drugs and violence that needs to be done on the West Side of Chicago, but also the state’s attorney’s effort to make sure that this community continues to flourish the way that Leola and Ed expect it to,” the alderman said.

Foxx said the solution to crime and violence on Chicago’s West Side is not just enhancing law enforcement but also by having the community taking the lead.

She said the garden is part of the West Side Justice Center’s efforts to prevent crime by building community partnerships.

“It’s helping in that the community sees us and feels connected to us,” Foxx said, adding her office’s attorneys are going out to schools, community groups and police meetings. “We don’t necessarily have to wait till something terrible happens for us to be engaged.”

“I think when you see that level of involvement and commitment to the community, that helps drive down crime.”

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