Visiting The Gary Comer Youth Center’s Rooftop Garden
Editors Note: The Local Beet is proud to bring you this exclusive “Edible Chicago Extra”. In partnership with the editors of Edible Chicago, this feature story expands on content in the print issue, available across the Chicago area. Think of it as Edible Chicago’s “DVD extras”, only available here at The Local Beet.
Photos by Grant Kessler
To many of us, the name Gary Comer doesn’t ring a bell. But mention Lands’ End, and many Chicagoans have either purchased a pair of khakis or a colorful crew neck sweater from one of the most legendary, successful clothing-catalog stores of the 1970’s and 80’s. Gary Comer was the man behind the apparel giant, the founder of Lands’ End. Born and raised on the working-class south side neighborhood of Grand Crossing, Mr. Comer remained rooted in the community, donating millions of dollars over several years to south side building and improvement projects to benefit health and education programs, particularly for children. To name a few of his fortunate benefactors: The Comer Children’s Hospital, the University of Chicago’s Comer Center for Pediatric and Specialty care and the Revere School community, where Mr. Comer attended as a boy. But it’s the creation of the Gary Comer Youth Center and its 8,600 square foot rooftop garden that captured our attention, inspiring us to spend a drizzly early Saturday morning becoming acquainted with the richness of this spectacular site.
As we arrive at the Center, we are warmly greeted by Marji Hess, the Garden Manager, and Karen Armijo, Culinary Director of the Youth Center’s food service department. We meet two of Karen’s employees, Robert and Dameon; both teens work in the Center’s culinary program, where they also learn how to grow food. As we climb the three flights of stairs on our way to the rooftop garden, Karen tells us that the Gary Comer Youth Center is a safe haven to south side children from ages eight to 18, offering after school extracurricular activities such as cooking, gardening, art, performance and cultural event classes. The building itself, we are informed, has won numerous and prestigious architectural awards for design excellence, including Mayor Daley’s GreenWorks award in 2007. Once we reach our destination, Marji introduces us to the incredibly lush rooftop garden, which is more spectacular than we had envisioned. As we enter, Marji shows us seven different varieties of mustard greens that are literally growing at our feet. She also proudly points out the garden’s early summer crop: rows of herbs, spinach, turnips, collards, lettuce, onions, kale and tomatoes. As we gaze across the garden she tells us that last year they harvested over 300 lbs. of sweet potatoes—enough crop to feed the entire Center’s participants and their families for a season. Even popcorn is grown and enjoyed as a healthy snack for all.
The garden is also home to many regional perennials and fruits such as fragrant lavender and prairie grasses, and several beds of strawberries. As we walk between the orderly rows admiring the span of color and texture before us, Dameon shows us several different varieties of early basil, which include orange, lime and even licorice. He laughs, “This tastes more like gum” and pops a leaf of mint basil in his mouth. “This is a 1/3 acre rooftop garden,” Karen tells us. She shares with us that the edibles from this thriving garden are used for the Center’s cooking classes and some for the daily meal preparation to help feed over 175 students. Seasonal produce is also sent home with participating youth, including a recipe. We also learn from Karen that the garden’s edibles are also sought after and purchased by many of Chicago’s finest chefs for their own restaurants.
As we taste test a freshly cut chive offered to us by Robert, Marji tells us about their goal for a year round garden with the use of row covers and other season-extending techniques. Robert and Dameon equally share their enthusiasm about their work, understanding how to grow food and prepare it. Both young men value the knowledge of where their food comes from. And we learn from Margi and then Karen the positive effect the garden has on visitors of all ages. “On fair weather days” Marji tells us “I like to invite each first time visitor to stretch out on the ground on his back and look up at the sky, see how big it is, and realize that the sky is pretty limitless.” Each one of us craned our necks up towards the clouds as Marji pauses briefly, then continues, “We are providing an opportunity to our youth to do well in school, to belong someplace, to feel really good about themselves and then to take that and go wherever they go. The sky is the limit at the Comer Center.” Karen also shares a moment she had with Gary Comer, the generous benefactor who sadly passed away in 2006 from cancer. “I remember when Gary built this building. He said to me, ‘the possibilities are endless,” and, Karen smiles broadly, “they really are.”
As the drizzle in the garden becomes a steady rain, we duck back inside into a room with an impressive selection of garden tools for students, a large potting table and rows of seedlings in small planters. As we leave the rooftop, say our goodbyes and head back to our car, we, too, believe that the sky is the limit, the possibilities endless at The Gary Comer Youth Center and its rooftop garden.
Author’s note: You can learn more about the Gary Comer Youth Center’s rooftop garden, and read about a visit to the garden for seasonal greens by a renowned Chicago chef, in the one year summer anniversary issue of Edible Chicago. The summer issue is being distributed now. Find a copy at your favorite farmers markets or visit our website for distribution locations.