Pilsen’s El Paseo community garden: Neighbors connect with nature, with each other

El Paseo Community Garden in East Pilsen runs the length of a city block, between Cullerton and 21st Streets.

It didn’t always look this green. Much of the land was once a “brownfield”, with high levels of lead contamination.

Today, it is home to more than 20 vegetable beds, a prairie of native plants, a permaculture site, beekeeping, and community classes and gatherings.

The change did not happen overnight. El Paseo Garden has been around since 2009 – around the time environmentalists and residents in Pilsen organized themselves against pollution in their community. Much of that advocacy called for the cleanup of toxic waste left by an old metal smelter.

Some local residents also wanted a small piece of land to garden – and got it.

The original space has been expanded with help from Neighbor Space, a non-profit urban community garden land trust that has helped secure the land and provides financial management, technical expertise and access to resources.

Paula and Antonio Acevedo, who have been co-directors of El Paseo Community Garden since 2015. Their son, Felix, 3, is a frequent visitor to the garden, but he still has doubts about all the insects.

The co-directors

Paula and Antonio Acevedo have been volunteering in the garden for over 10 years.

They took over as co-directors in 2015, when the founders left. They have taken on projects including two murals and adding solar power to the garden, a beekeeping program and a permaculture site.

Paula Acevedo is primarily responsible for the administrative work – she seeks grants and works with others to make planting stations accessible to seniors with disabilities and to ensure that the spaces are fully utilized. She also helped set up yoga and wellness classes.

Antonio Acevedo is responsible for construction projects.

“I do most of the physical work and I lead groups of volunteers and other garden leaders who do those projects,” he says.

They count on volunteers who help them weekly, but also constantly think about how they can involve more people.

Wellness leader Cristina Puzio offers classes in wellness and traditional medicine.

Wellness leader Cristina Puzio offers classes in wellness and traditional medicine.

The wellness leader

Cristina Puzio, a welfare leader at El Paseo, works as a part-time home care assistant and volunteers on some afternoons. She is 41 and has lived in Pilsen all her life.

She has been involved in the garden since 2016 and often leads meditations, energetic healing sessions and mourning circles. She also helps coordinate volunteers who teach yoga, fitness and flamenco classes.

“I feel like there are so many people here with so many talents, right?” she says. “So many different leaders in the community. But this is my way of giving back to the community.”

Noah Frazier, one of the volunteer beekeepers at El Paseo Community Garden, holds up a container of bees that will be checked for mites (left) and a panel of bees from the hive.

Noah Frazier, one of the volunteer beekeepers at El Paseo Community Garden, holds up a container of bees that will be checked for mites (left) and a panel of bees from the hive.

the beekeeper

El Paseo uses beekeeping to educate people about bees and other native pollinators.

Noah Frazier, 27, who moved to Chicago from Berlin years ago, is one of the beekeepers. During the day he does masonry. On Sundays he is usually in El Paseo to look after the bees with other volunteers.

According to him, the number of colonies in the garden has grown exponentially in recent years. Some garden bees were relocated to other locations in the city, including Working Bikes and City Farm.

“Every time you approach the beehive you have to slow down a little and forget about all the other things that are going on in your life and then move very deliberately and a little slowly so that you don’t crush any of these living creatures while you’re entering their home.” invades,’ he says.

Carlos Nuñez, one of the most active gardeners of El Paseo Community Garden.  He spends a lot of time planting and watering flowers and vegetables

Carlos Nuñez, one of the most active gardeners of El Paseo Community Garden. He spends a lot of time planting and watering flowers and vegetables

The senior gardener

Carlos Nuñez can usually be found in the garden in the afternoon with the other senior gardeners.

He has been a member of the garden since 2010, saying his presence reminds him of Mexico, where he comes from.

“All this reminds me of when we were planting, the smell of different herbs, the fresh air,” Nuñez says in Spanish.

Nuñez has a disability. He had brain surgery years ago and sometimes loses his balance while walking.

Before coming to the garden, he says, he was very depressed and not very active. Now when he is in the garden, he likes to play the guitar and sing the songs he learned from his father in Mexico.

The El Paseo Community Garden site before volunteers began converting the space.

The El Paseo Community Garden site before volunteers began converting the space.

An aerial view of the El Paseo Community Garden.  To the south are garden beds, a beehive and the farm;  further north are the outdoor kitchen and meditation room;  furthest north are the newly added lot with a dog run and the permaculture area.

An aerial view of the El Paseo Community Garden. To the south are garden beds, a beehive and the farm; further north are the outdoor kitchen and meditation room; furthest north are the newly added lot with a dog run and the permaculture area.

A changing neighbourhood

Paula and Antonio Acevedo have worked alongside other volunteers to ensure that El Paseo is a welcoming space, especially for the Mexican Americans who have lived in Pilsen for generations.

The garden has been the target of vandalism and theft, including theft of beehive panels and people taking fruits and vegetables outside of scheduled harvest times. It has also had problems with people using the garden as a toilet.

Tamara Becerra Valdez, a permaculture field leader at El Paseo Community Garden, holds up scarlet bee balm (left) and calendula (right).

Tamara Becerra Valdez, a permaculture field leader at El Paseo Community Garden, holds up scarlet bee balm (left) and calendula (right).

But a bigger challenge, the Acevedos say, is the neighborhood’s changing demographics. Pilsen has long been a Mexican immigrant neighborhood, but rising housing costs are driving families out. The Acevedos are second-generation Mexican-American. They rent and also don’t want to be priced out of the way.

Paula Acevedo says some people are concerned that having a nice garden will only make the area more attractive in the real estate market. And some people, she says, have the impression that the garden is just for young, white professionals.

“They tell me, ‘Yeah, my friend said it was a… guero garden,” but I said to them, “No, it isn’t,” she says.

They have volunteers from nearby high schools, she says, most of them are Latino. And while many people who show up for their volunteer days on Sundays are younger, white professionals, Paula Acevedo says most of the people involved in the sound healing program are women of color, and the majority of seniors with garden beds are Latino.

Romelia Romero waters vegetables in the El Paseo Community Garden.

Romelia Romero waters vegetables in the El Paseo Community Garden.

She says her biggest goal in recruiting volunteers is to find people who are committed to the neighborhood.

“The community is very volatile right now,” she says. “And that’s how you have a very good leader for several years, until they have to move again.”

Paula Acevedo says she is excited about a half-acre piece of land that the garden has recently acquired. The Loewenthal metal smelter operated here years ago. She asks for ideas for how to use the space. Volunteers erected a temporary fence for a dog run, nature playground and fitness equipment station.

“This is community,” she says. “This is unique. Not a sterile park that could just be in any part of town. We want it to really identify and show the community, the culture.”

Volunteer beekeepers check bees for mites in the El Paseo Community Garden.

Volunteer beekeepers check bees for mites in the El Paseo Community Garden.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: