Plantings, Art, Down-A-Clown Enliven Unloved Ravenswood Lot

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Brainstorming ideas for the under-used lot. Photo: Bohuslav Jelen

Last weekend, community groups across the city staged placemaking events in under-used lots, plazas and corners, all part of the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Old Place, New Tricks contest. The Grow Space Picnic, held in a gravel parking lot at Ravenswood and Wilson, was a great example of how fun, games, and art can energize ho-hum spaces – and help build community.

The lot, located next to an engraving workshop, under Metra’s UP-North Line, is normally an eyesore, according to Gene Wagendorf from the Ravenswood Community Council, which hosted the picnic along with the Midwest Pesticide Action Center. A large brick wall next to the space is a frequent target of graffiti, so many residents dislike walking past it, Wagendorf said.

However, the block gets plenty of foot traffic from the nearby Ravenswood Metra station and nearby homes and businesses, so Wagendorf says the lot is an ideal space to revitalize with a community asset, according to Wagendorf. The picnic, which ran from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., was designed to test that notion by activating the “blighted” spot with greenery, art, music, kids’ activities and refreshments.

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The transformed parking lot. Photo: Gene Wagendorf

The nearby American Indian Center, which has a program to build gardens with native plantings, and Artreach, the nonprofit sister organization of Lill Street Learning Center, also helped put on the event. Patch Landscaping contributed temporary landscaping, covering the lot’s driveway with sod-covered hills topped by small Japanese trees.

“We thought that if we were going to have a theme of green space, we needed to have more than just a gravel parking lot,” Wagendorf said. “I spent half the day sitting over there. When it was shady, I could have slept there.”

He estimates that 80 to 100 neighbors, many of them kids, showed up to play carnival games like Crazy Cats and Down-A-Clown, color worksheets featuring garden scenes and insects, and enjoy free ice cream and lemonade. They decorated a chain-link fence next to the wall with a textile-and-yarn installation, and chalked ideas for the space onto a blackboard.

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Only one more cat to go. Photo: Bohuslav Jelen

Proposals included a community garden, a dog park, a sculpture walk, a bike and skateboard park, a plaza with a fountain, a farmers market, and even a swimming pool. “The most interesting feedback we got from people is that they’d like to see more activities in the neighborhood for teens,” Wagendorf said.

The RCC has funding for six to ten new murals in the neighborhood, which could include the wall by the parking lot, and they collected ideas for the locations and subject matter from picnic attendees. “Studies show that art murals help reduce graffiti, and law enforcement also says they help,” said Wagendorf’s coworker Cecilia Diaz.

Did you make it out to any of the 16 placemaking events this weekend? If so, tell us about your experience in the comments section.