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All Eden Place Wants Is A Schoolhouse For Its Garden

By Chuck Sudo in News on Apr 24, 2012 7:00PM

Two weeks ago a group of people gathered at a home in Albany Park to meet a man who doesn’t accept the word “no.” Big in stature and personality, this was a man who commanded the respect and attention of the room as he told the story of an urban nature center in the heart of the city’s South side, and his future plans for it.

It may be hyperbole to call Eden Place Nature Center an oasis. Bounded to its immediate west by freight train tracks and to its east by the urban decay and vacant space of the Fuller Park neighborhood and the former Robert Taylor Homes, the term is an apt one. For over three decades Eden Place was a 3.5 acre illegal dumping ground that leached materials like lead, mercury, asbestos and construction debris directly into the soil.

Fifteen years ago, founder Michael Howard had had enough of the dump in his backyard and decided to clean up the site. A contractor and builder by trade, Howard began removing the tainted dirt from the site, by himself. “My friends told me I was crazy to take on the task,” Howard said.

By the time Howard was finished, he had removed over 200 tons of contaminated soil, with the help of volunteers. “The EPA told me later the soil was so contaminated nothing could grow in it, but it wasn’t so contaminated that it could qualify as a Superfund site.” From that point, Howard decided to transform the site into a nature center with a continually evolving beautification process. Eden Place has tried to add a different aspect to the site every year, from a gazebo and a stable, to a chicken coop, to hoop houses where they grow their own vegetables. Howard’s work with Eden Place was awarded by the EPA in 2004 with the agency’s Conservation and Native Landscaping Award, which recognizes the creative use of native plants and animals that contribute to a region’s biodiversity.

For scores of inner city youth, Eden Place has served as their first substantive interaction with nature. Eden Place has ongoing programs that give students basic skills training in subjects ranging from urban agriculture to small business development. The site also serves as a farmers market from Memorial Day to early October annually.

The most ambitious of Eden Place’s programs is its being thee Illinois site for the MonarchLive project—a conservation and restoration project with the U.S. Forest Service focused on the monarch butterfly. Eden Place is home to the largest monarch butterfly colony in the state. Over the years Eden Place has set up over 20 places in Fuller Park for monarch butterflies, tagging and recording each one to track their migratory patterns.

The next project in store for Eden Place is to build a permanent classroom space for their students and volunteers. “I would like to have a permanent building where our kids and volunteers don’t have to go to a port-a-potty to use the bathroom,” Howard said. A group of architecture students from the Illinois Institute of Technology, under the guidance of architect and teacher Frank Flury, have made building a classroom for Eden Place their graduate project. (This was also the reason for the gathering in Albany Park was to raise funds for the project.) The proposed 750 square-foot building will embody the values of Eden Place, promote neighborhood pride in Fuller Park, and provide a safe environment for learning

But the project requires money: Around $100,000, to be exact. A Kickstarter project successfully raised the $10,000 toward this end. The team has also received promises of in-kind donations from local construction suppliers and a promise from 3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell and other city officials to help make the permit process easier. One of the members of the design team, Kelly Moynihan, told those gathered, “This isn’t about IIT, or Mr. Howard or Professor Flury. It’s about the community.”

Eden Place is located at 4417 S. Stewart Ave. and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter. If you're interested in contributing to the Eden Place Nature Studio project, email Frank Flury.