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Water funding may impact future community gardening

Robert Jackson, Austin Green Team member, says working in the greenhouse brings him peace. He waters the spring flowers that will be transferred to the community gardens.

The Austin Green Team gardening group may have to start paying for water previously provided by the city under the Mayor’s 2012 proposed budget.

The Austin Green Team’s founder Mary Peery said her garden, Paradise, was the first of the many Chicagoland neighborhood gardens, which are directly effected by the water supply cuts for non-profit organizations. The Chicago West Side gardening group may have to pay for the water once provided by the city free-of-charge.

“Anytime you say gardening, water is next,” Peery said, ”We will try to build and see how we come out without the water.” Peery doesn’t want to see a single flower downtown. If watering community gardens is not necessary to the budget, it should not be necessary downtown, she said.

Peery said the community gardens will be okay, but they will need to adjust their flower choices in the various gardens to those that need water less often. One of the 10 gardens, the Rick McMorris Garden, has no water system and still blossoms, Peery said.

Irma Ferba, Green Team treasurer and Austin resident, said she doesn’t know what will happen with the elimination of the fee waiver. “I’m not sure who is responsible for the water,” said Ferba, “When the gardens first started you could get a permit to use the fire hydrant. My hydrant is in the middle of the block and my garden is here, on the corner.” She said she uses soaker hoses now because they are more efficient and use less water. In the future, Ferba said she would have to plant flowers that need less watering to keep the  group’s Vision on Menard garden going.

Julie Samuels of Openlands, a metropolitan conservation organization that works with the Green Team, said the city should come up with a plan to conserve rainwater, but added that the cooperative gardening within the Green Team will find the best solution to this issue.

“The discontinuation of the water won’t immediately affect the gardeners, but they may have to pay a fee in the future,” Samuels said.

The new budget went into effect in January. It included $417 million in cuts.  The proposed plan includes eliminating fee waivers for non-profit organizations except for: 100 percent exemption on sewer service for seniors, 20 percent discount for Museums in the Park, 20 percent discount for Disproportionate Share Hospitals and CPS, City Colleges and the Public Buildings Commission will continue to receive 100 percent exemptions.

Aside from cutting the non-profits’ free water supply, Mayor Emanuel proposed an increase in Chicago residential water bills. Residents will face a 25 percent increase in 2012, then a 15 percent increase for the following three years in an effort to fund repairs of over 1600 miles of aged water and sewer pipes.

Patricia Jackson, Green Team member, repots a plant in the Green Team's greenhouse.

Despite the looming changes, the Green Team remains hopeful that it can carry out its mission of planting seeds and propagating flowers to beautify the Austin Community. Peery founded the Green Team in 1989 after getting involved in the destruction of an abandoned building. The Green Team installed its first community garden and named it Paradise. In 1995, the Green Team had grown and began turning dilapidated lots into beautiful gardens to improve the look and feel of the community.

The Green Team has established 10 gardens in the Austin community and is also in charge of two greenhouses located in Austin High School. They have received several Chicago area awards. Cynthia Weaver, Green Team member and Austin resident said the school really enjoys their presence.

“People will come here and walk around when they get a little break,” Weaver said. “They tell us ‘Oh, I just love to walk around the greenhouse. It makes me feel better.’”

One of those people is retired Army veteran and new Green Team member, Robert Hart. He said the greenhouse helps him deal with his Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. “It gives me a since of enjoyment. I have PTSD and [gardening] helps me relax and enjoy my day,” said Hart.

“Instead of having to be scared, I can just relax a little bit on my medicine and do this to keep me occupied through the day.”

Juline McClinton, Green Team secretary and Austin resident, said her involvement with the team encouraged her neighbors to keep up their yards. “I share with my neighbor, and we compete with each other to see who has the best yard,” McClinton said.

The recent exemption from the water fee waiver is just one of several concerns for not the Green Team. Peery said they have faced vandalism and theft. Some community children have also come into the garden pulled up the flowers and destroyed the landscaping, and her vegetable gardens’ harvests have been stolen year after year. Peery  takes a gentle approach with these setbacks, hoping for teachable moments. She said she will continue to plant a vegetable garden because she may be feeding someone in need.

Patricia Jackson said she hopes what they do will inspire more residents to join them. “Maybe they will see some fresh flowers and color and they will respect their neighborhood and get others involved,” Jackson said.

Still, the Green Team continues their mission to beautify the community. Their busy season has begun, and as they prepare for summer, they will host several annual events including a plant sale at the high school and a Memorial ceremony at the Peace in The Valley Garden, honoring past Austin community activists.

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