New urbans organize their neighborhoods
more sense to walk over to a neighbor’s, a community center or a small neighborhood eatery for a festive dinner — than to get in the car and sample the fare at a come-hither spot even a short expressway ride away. These Chicagoans think it makes more sense to organize a talk about the foliage in the neighborhood, and walk around discussing how to manage it, than to hop on a plane to experience the flora and fauna of an exotic far-off island.
They are committed to new urbanism, which they say means more than organic food, blue bags and public transportation.
These new-style urbanistas, who exist everywhere, envision experimental communities within or near cities, that make drastic cuts in greenhouse emissions, take on proactive ecology programs and concentrate on centralized neighborhood centers that always have a lot going on and are easy to walk to.
Some communities in the suburbs are being built to encompass this philosophy, but others are simply starting where they are and using what they have to create the quality of life they want for the future.
The field house at Thomas J. Waters Elementary School was once used for overflow classroom space at Campbell and Sunnyside. But now it is Beyond Today’s de facto community center, where neighbors gather and make plans to improve the neighborhood, all with the school’s blessing. A onetime school parking lot serves as the new neighborhood vegetable garden, says Beyond Today organizer Julie Peterson, a former high school science teacher who receives a stipend for pulling activities together. Currently, the group requires no dues but does ask for donations.
“We are lucky enough to have the river in the neighborhood,” Peterson says. To her way of thinking, new urbanism is fortified by a rallying cry to recycle or be environmentally aware, but more importantly, it needs a solid base in a “natural area” — like the vegetable garden — that connects neighbors.
Getting involved with Friends of the Chicago River was the rallying point for the 150-plus neighbors who are regular activists in the 40-plus square block area, whose residents includes Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
As few as eight might participate in a dinner at someone’s home. As many as 100-plus participated in a recent anti-war candlelight vigil, according to Jaecks.
Not long ago, the group burned the riverbank and part of the organic garden at Waters — in line with prairie plant growth principles — with the blessing of city officials. The summer outcome is the healthy presence of original native plants such as Purple Coneflower and Butterfly Weed.
Beyond Today is actually a “circle of caring” about people first, a neighborhood second and then the earth, Peterson says.
The neighbors put on regular “green dinners,” with entertainment often provided by a neighborhood-based choir — dubbed the Bullfrogs — to discuss how the neighborhood can promote sustainability. “We brainstorm, and try to figure out ways that a majority of us can choose to do things differently because we see the environment as an emergency,” Peterson says.
Jennifer Slosar, a high school history and humanities teacher at the Latin School of Chicago, says the neighborhood is “great” in terms of everyone getting to know each other and the range of activities that neighbors participate in together. Slosar learned her skills in neighborhood gardening in St. Louis, her hometown. She moved to Chicago three years ago to take the job at Latin.
“I love having a community garden across the street,” she says, “where basil and tomatoes can be grown.”
Slosar says she thinks the new urbanism is a growing awareness of the role of humans in the ecosystem, and figuring out ways to live better and differently.
New urbanism gives people an automatic sense of community, which is good for one’s social life, she says, and good for promoting activism. In her late 30s now, she says she wants to live like this for the rest of her life.
“The dichotomy between ‘nature’ and ‘city’ is an artificial one,” she says. “We can meld them together to create a better life.”
Says Peterson, “It’s all a matter of valuing the earth.”
Jaecks says he likes to touch base with neighbors through a regular day of work at the community garden. At the solstice celebrations, Jaecks likes sharing personal news.
At the neighborhood green din- ners, he enjoys not only sharing news but also reciting poetry — and “whatever else people want to share.”
Jaecks says most people don’t plan ahead and he likes that, too. “I love being part of this neighborhood — and Julie [Peterson] has supplied a tremendous burst of energy.”
Peterson, 34, grew up in Park Ridge and lived in New Zealand and Rogers Park before buying a Victorian home near Waters in 2001. She and a handful of other people are working to convert her home to a co-op.
“Living here I don’t feel like I have to flit around the globe looking for something better; we are doing things about global warming right here,” she says. “We are working to [convince local politicians to] replace all the streetlights in Horner Park with wind turbines. It would save energy, generate electricity on the grid, and help with bird migration.”
Peterson says Beyond Today also wants to increase the level of affordable housing in the neighborhood. The group is working with U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Gene Schulter (47th) to do that.
Beyond Today’s renters and owners alike hate losing “school families” as affordable rental housing in the neighborhood gives way to expensive condos. “There is a tremendous decline in Chicagoans’ homebuying power,” Peterson says.
Bonnie McGrath is a Chicagobased free-lance writer and attorney.