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EARTH EMERGENCY (Part 1): 1985-2021 — Food security and a ‘recycle Wrigley Field’ design contest

Recently, the official Major League Baseball website featured an article on Fenway Farms — 5,000 square feet of food production happening on the premises of Boston’s famed stadium. The article by Matt Monagan (Fenway Park has a Farm, with great photos) mentioned that at least three other MLB stadiums were also growing food on-site, although on a lesser scale.  

For the record, 5,000 square feet is equivalent to 1/10 of an acre and is about the same size as the working farm at our local high school (Edible Acre Pilot Project at Evanston Township High School). For additional context, our 2008-09 task force (Illinois Local & Organic, Food & Farm Task Force) computed that the amount of growing area required to feed one family of four for one year is about 2.5 acres. Probably the USDA has a more accurate figure, but for purposes of this blog, the number is meaningful.

Monagan’s article inspired me to look back at a local contest involving another MLB stadium — “design a recycled Wrigley Field” — to which I submitted a plan that included 72,000+ square feet of food production (1.65 acres) as well as other aspects of “bringing the life of the land back to the city” (and to urban consciousness). The year was 1985, what turned out to be a watershed year in the “local food” movement. Not that MLB or the Chicago Cubs or the contest organizers knew it at the time.

This is the full story of the contest, the results, and my entry in the context of the U.S. local food & farm movement. In my opinion the local food & farm movement is a cornerstone of the 21st century’s climate justice movement — not to mention the century’s social justice, political justice, and economic justice movements — i.e., real democracy. As such, this blog is a vindication of my losing (and disrespected) contest entry. But it is also an attempt to get us all on the same page and facing our current existential crisis — squarely, courageously, and joyful in a common, practical project.

Please excuse (or enjoy) some of the quasi-random facts and observations I’ve included in this blog. As a 70-year old, I’m in the process of emptying my overloaded memory bank.

A. 1962 – 1985: The U.S. Local Food Movement — A prehistory
B. Wrigley Field Design Contest: April 1985 — The Chicago Reader
— Contest Results
— My Proposal: “Wrigley Field Community Ecology Center”
C. 1985 – 2021: U.S. Local Food Movement
— 1985 – 2020: Food Security, Farm Sovereignty
— 2021: “Building community through fresh food”
— The Power of Food: What next?
D. Relevant and Recent Resources

A prehistory

Although the climate movement of 2021 is currently dominated by a narrow-minded energy conversation — fossil fuel vs. renewables — the environmental movement began as a land-use and agriculture movement. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, documenting the overuse and overkill of agricultural pesticides, was published in 1962. Our bipartisan “democracy” got a big wake-up call in 1972 with Watergate (GOP operatives’ break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters). Although the next landmark event was the 1973 oil shortage — an ostensibly energy-focused event — the first grassroots reaction was not energy production, but energy conservation, a move to self-sufficiency (including community gardens), and appreciation of nature. Hence, in 1974 the Evanston Ecology Center was built on a newly designated land-use, the Ladd Arboretum along the North Shore Channel (a manmade extension of the Chicago River). Folks in Normal, IL had already seen the energy and waste crisis coming in 1971 when they created Operation Recycle, renamed Ecology Action Center in 2004.

Simultaneously, in the late ‘50s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s, the nascent real democracy movement was forming and fomenting: Civil rights actions led by African-Americans (leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964), the second wave feminist movement (leading to the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972), and the anti-Vietnam War protests (which led to the U.S. pulling out in 1973).

Then, somehow, in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president — the saccharine-smile movie-star con-man (born in Illinois) who now, in hindsight, prefigured the grouchy reality TV conman, Donald Trump (whose main Chicago connection seems to be a surprisingly good-looking skyscraper where the Chicago Sun-Times used to be). 

With Reagan’s election, hunger in Chicago (and elsewhere in the U.S.) increased. The 1982 Food Files, three short reports commissioned by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, is a 16-page documentation of the destruction of Chicago’s metro food system (begun well before Reagan) exacerbated by the elimination of social safety nets by Reagan. For some details, see Illinois Food & Farm Resources.

Reading the Food Files in 2021, the shortness of the reports only emphasizes the starkness of the realities. The Food Files were written by Paige Chapel (now President & CEO of Aeris investment consultants) who provided a copy to me some years ago.

Also in 1982, the first food policy council (FPC) was founded, in Knoxville, TN. FPCs are designed to bring food & farm decision-making closer to consumers while including expertise from people experiencing the negative downstream effects of an increasingly global and corporate food chain. FPCs now exist all over the U.S. and Canada. 

In 1984 an Exxon manager made a presentation on CO2 Greenhouse and Climate Issues
A 2 to 3-degree C increase in global average temperature can be amplified to about 10 degrees C at the poles. This could cause polar ice melting and a possible sea-level rise of 0.7 meter by 2080. The time scale for such a catastrophe is measured in centuries. Other potential effects associated with a high atmospheric CO2 concentration and a warmer climate are:
—redistribution of rainfall
—positive and negatives changes in agricultural productivity
—accelerated growth of pests and weeds
—detrimental health effects
—population migration

This is just one of many internal documents by Big Oil companies (like Exxon, Chevron, Shell) from 40-50 years ago, showing that they “knew their products would lead to disastrous climate impacts”. They not only lied about what they knew but they “actively spent millions on campaigns to spread disinformation and doubt about the science in order to protect their profits,” according to Emily Sanders, ExxonKnews (as quoted in the June 14, 2021 Currently Chicago newsletter).

The farm crisis also only deepened under Reagan, so much so that celebrities undertook to bring the crisis directly to the American public, especially to the urban and suburban consumers. Thus, the watershed beginning of the rural-urban, farmer-consumer coalition known as the local food movement — Farm Aid. The first concert, organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young, was held on Sept. 22, 1985 in Champaign, IL (home of the Illinois land-grant, U. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign — UIUC).

The Chicago Reader

Five months before the first Farm Aid conference, in the middle of a national farm crisis that had reached the front pages of the Chicago Tribune (which had ties to International Harvester tractor company through the McCormick family), The Chicago Reader announced its contest: Design a “recycled Wrigley Field”. 

To be clear, the context of the contest had nothing to do with waste reduction, food sovereignty, or other environmental values. The impetus was the possibility that the Tribune company, which had bought the Chicago Cubs in 1981, might move the franchise to the suburbs where they could build a bigger, modern, domed stadium with lights (and probably get more public money than they could in the City of Chicago). Reaching the playoffs in 1984 had ratcheted up the speculation during the offseason. As the 1985 season began (in April) and public buzz increased, The Reader announced their design challenge.

On the chance the Cubs might abandon Wrigley Field, the “How to Enter” instructions said: “Give the old park new purpose. Add, subtract, rip up, restore, but preserve the special sense of the site, do honor to its history, while turning the stadium into a place that faces the future full of promise and confidence. The reborn stadium should be good for the bustling community around it, and it should keep Wrigley Field what Wrigley Field has always been—a terrific place to be.”

Even I, a politically naive 34-year old Chicago native (a Chicago Public Schools product — Solomon & Von Steuben — living in Evanston), knew that the Reader was trying (a) to have fun (in a Reader-like way) and (b) to stick it to the powers that be (Tribune, Cubs, City of Chicago, probably some aldermen and local businessmen, not to mention Major League Baseball and other national or international interests). But, in classic Chicago style, everyone for his or her own purposes, the contest was a forum for us all to stick it to each other. My purposes in entering the contest were 100% ecological, democratic (as in REAL democracy, not that “republic” business), and equitable (in terms of the local economy). I had a lot of fun with my entry (even as I was 100% serious about my concept) and I appreciated the opportunity to draw out my ideal.

In hindsight, the contest was a bust and could have been predicted as such. Those of us who were Cubs fans and/or Wrigley Field fans — people who might be inclined to “save” Wrigley Field in one form or another — were mostly put off by the contest from the get-go. Recycle Wrigley Field? Why? What’s wrong with the Cubs playing there forever? Would-be urban planners who might jump at the chance to reimagine a popular square block in the heart of a great city were hindered by conflicting feelings and/or straight-up denial. I’m pretty sure the Reader would have gotten many more responses if the challenge was to recycle something more universally despised — e.g., Mayor Lightfoot’s police academy (wrong era, but you know what I mean).

To encourage rigorous proposals, the Reader had partnered with the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects and provided a packet of architectural drawings of Wrigley Field—a 9-page packet of plans and elevations that I still have. (Presumably the packet was provided by the Tribune Co., another example of everyone using the contest for his or her own purposes.)

The results of the competition were announced in the Reader on July 12, 1985, headlined “16 Ways to Save Wrigley Field”.  Although more than 300 people had requested the packet of plans, only sixteen of us had overcome our denial and had actually sent in proposals.

The Reader was clearly disappointed in the response, both quantity and quality, but they put a good face on the results and milked them for a nice long article. Miner wrote in the first paragraph: “As might have been expected all along, as might even be appropriate, [the Wrigley Field design competition] summoned more madness than common sense.” Later in the article, as he was getting ready to report the winners (“So who won?”), Miner wrote: “We must report with regret that most of you were daunted by the challenge. Merely 16 proposals came back to us…and the general level of wit and craftsmanship did not approach our wildest expectations. In fact, one judge, the architect George Tsenes, looked over the field and declared, ‘All the entries are losers, not one worthwhile entry.’”

Nevertheless the judges and newspaper did their due diligence, awarding a lst place and 2nd place and reporting in much detail on most of the proposals. For the record, the lst and 2nd place designs were:

— First place winner: “Schmidt, Garden & Erikson’s entry retains a ‘slice of existing field’ [from stands to scoreboard] and surrounds it with apartments, retail shops, two restaurants, a health club, and parkland
— Second place winner: “‘Pelham 1, 2, 3’ (Howard Hirsch, Jim Yoshida, and Ellen Bailey) proposes a vast ‘diamond’ of parkland and canals connecting Wrigley Field to Lake Michigan, turning the ball park into a circular lagoon, and razing block after block of Wrigleyville” in favor of “Versailles-like Gardens”

No prizes or plaques were awarded, although the “top” designs were exhibited in a local gallery (Frumkin & Struve).

MY PROPOSAL: “Wrigley Field Community Ecology Center”
Unfortunately, I have not been able to find an archive of Reader articles that includes the contest results. But I did save a copy of the July 12, 1985 article along with my actual contest entry, a laminated poster that has survived various moves and is now hanging in my dining room. I admit this publicly not because I hold an unresolved belief that my proposal was the best or even good. I offer it as evidence that some of us saw the climate crisis coming and lived our lives through that lens, as befitted a truly existential crisis. 

In praise of ecology centers, urban farms, etc., then and now, here is the description of my Wrigley Field Community Ecology Center as it appears on the poster, shamelessly duplicating many aspects of the Evanston Ecology Center built in 1974.  Note: I since have learned much more about wind power, including the correct terminology. It’s wind turbine, not windmill (unless it’s also grinding flour).

Wrigley Field Community Ecology Center
Bringing the Life of the Land back to the City…
A center to promote environmental responsibility by maintaining demonstration gardens—forest, prairie, rock garden, orchard, vegetable plots, community garden plots, greenhouses, picnic and recreation area, horse stable, and a community building. The community building to be used for the promotion of energy alternatives (wind, solar, etc.), gardening, recycling (especially composting), bicycling, and other ecologically sound ways of living in the city. The center’s staff to have expertise in these areas and to offer advice, workshops, and classes to the community as well as supervising and maintaining the grounds and premises. A major goal is to organize an on-going children’s garden (perhaps in conjunction with a local school) to provide first-hand experience of growing food (food does not grow in plastic wrap!) and to stimulate community spirit and commitment. Space in the center should be offered to other community groups for offices, meeting rooms, classrooms. Possible long-term plans include housing other animals (chickens, rabbits) and expanding the recycling component to include glass, newspapers, and cans. Also, some of the surrounding parking lots can be turned into additional community garden plots or annexed to the botanic garden.

1. COMMUNITY ECOLOGY CENTER (with solar panels)
2. PICNIC and PLAY AREA — playground equipment for children, picnic tables, open areas. Original baseball diamond demarcated by a 2’-high stone wall, an ash tree planted on the pitcher’s mound. Original dugouts maintained as areas for meeting, classrooms, hanging out. 
3. FOREST — native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers allowed to grow wild
4. PRAIRIE — native prairie wildflowers and grasses allowed to grow wild
5. WINDMILL to supply electricity for ecology center
6. GREENHOUSES built on original bleacher stands
7. STABLE below greenhouse (on ground floor) for a local carriage business; manure to be composted and used in gardens
8. STORAGE below greenhouse (ground floor) for vehicles, equipment, etc.
9. COMPOST/UTILITY AREAS — Numerous bins for composting horse manure, garden refuse (residents may dump their garden refuse at the bins); storage and small work areas, as needed for gardens.
11. COMMUNITY GARDEN PLOTS for neighborhood residents (space for approximately 60 30×40 plots
13. IVY-COVERED WALL (original)

For comparison, here is how the judges described my proposal in 1985 in the Reader summary:

For prettiness, Debbie Hillman’s “Community Ecology Center” stands out. The amazing thing about Hillman’s entry is that she has decorated it with 51 kinds of pressed flowers and plants. [Ed] Zotti hailed this “fantastic effort,” while suggesting that “stables and compost heap should be closer together.”

Indeed, a whole lot of nature would have to be jammed into one square block. In addition to the center, which roughly follows the grandstand from first base to third, and a stable “for the local carriage trade,” Hillman calls for greenhouses where the bleachers are, a fruit orchard, community garden plots, a windmill, a picnic and play area, a rock garden and pool, and “prairie” and “forest”.  

We also heard from Saya Hillman, age 6, of the same Evanston household. “This is a Fun Club,” Saya wrote on her crayon drawing. “Kids play baseball and all sorts of games. Parents can join in, except for baseball…”

“Yellow-orange-pink color scheme has my vote…,” Zotti responded. “Strongly suspect Debbie Hillman is Saya Hillman’s mom. Note strong sense of childlike wonder in both.”

[Howard] Decker noted, “Mother wants a kind of Chicago People’s Park, and daughter wants a Garden of Eden for little kids. Kids in Horto. Horto in Horto.” [John] Iltis, always alert for the interests of the neighborhood, “Leave it to a child to come up with the best idea of all a fun club for children, designed by children.” But as for Mom, “Her plan will create a great gang hangout.”

C. 1985 – 2021: U.S. LOCAL FOOD MOVEMENT

Needless to say, in 2021, the Chicago Cubs are still playing in Wrigley Field, having just taken the season series from the San Diego Padres (our 1984 playoff joy-killer). Of more lasting effect, the Chicago Cubs are now permanently known as the 2016 World Series champions. Wrigley Field still feels like Wrigley Field, even with many changes (giant TV screen, adjacent park & hotel, and, yes, lights for night games). I’m as happy as any one-issue voter might be that my Wrigley Field ecology center was never implemented.  

But it’s pretty clear that the term ‘madness’ should be saved for those who didn’t see the need to address energy conservation and local food security in 1985. The contest judges were looking for “wit and craftsmanship”. I was thinking of survival. Here’s a brief continuation of the environmental-climate-democracy movement — i.e., local food movement — timeline after the 1985 contest and 1985 Farm Aid concert.

In the 1980s-90s, chronic hunger continued to increase. If I remember Mark Winne’s quote about Hartford, CT, where he was Exec. Director of the Hartford Food System for many years, during this time Hartford went from 4 emergency food outlets to 400.

At the same time, development pressure was inspiring visionary voters to preserve open space and green space — what little land was still part of the commons. In 1986-88, Skokie, IL created the Emily Oaks Nature Center. Residents of my childhood neighborhood (Peterson Park in Chicago) created the North Park Village Nature Center, obtaining an easement in 1989 to prohibit any development of this property and to define how it was to be maintained as a natural area for 75 years (2164).

In 2001-03, three Illinois Food Security summits were held, coordinated by the Chicago Community Trust which was being pressured to find solutions for the growing need for emergency food. Individual communities and groups had been patching together various local food components — community gardens, urban farms, farmers markets, CSAs, K-12 farm-to-school programs, college food groups, seed libraries, shared kitchens, food banks & food pantries. Everyone was (and still is) looking for more coordinated efforts and resources.

Various coordinating efforts have developed: Chicago metro’s Advocates for Urban Agriculture, Illinois Farmers Market Association, Illinois Local Food, Farms & Jobs Council (not currently funded but charged with implementing the 2009 Illinois Food, Farms & Jobs Plan), etc., etc.  Similar efforts — components plus coordination — have been popping up everywhere across the U.S., belying Mr. Iltis’s concerns about gangs. Allotment gardens, urban farms, agro-forests, compost projects, backyard livestock, restaurant training programs, etc., are the pride of every community in 2021. Like the Black Panthers breakfast program, some of these projects are run by “gangs”. Luckily, in 2020, many more of us gained a better understanding of what gangs are, why they form, and, more importantly, who the real gangsters and conmen were and are.

2021: “Building community through fresh food”
Finally, when the sudden onslaught of the COVID pandemic hit in March 2020, local food projects across the U.S. proved their value in the face of sudden food shortages, supply chain disruptions, and mass quarantine. Local food practitioners were able to calm both our officials and fellow citizens because many local food structures were already in place. Although certain components were still in a protracted pilot project stage (largely due to the 2008-09 financial crash), local food networks were well established in many places, parallel to the global system.

Thus, in the first few months of the pandemic and ever since, we only needed to: 
— Keep the components going—farmers markets, community gardens, urban farms, CSAs, farm to school programs, local chefs and caterers, etc.
— Scale up (more federal resources to state, county, and local jurisdictions)
— Coordinate, especially at the community level (food policy councils)

In April 2021, another baseball writer came out with an article on food security, J-Hey and Friends help a Community Heal. Jordan Bastian wrote how Jason Heyward (Chicago Cubs right fielder) and other Chicago athletes had been working with and supporting the Austin Harvest market on Chicago’s west side. As the Austin Harvest organizers are showing, local food systems are not just about the food. “Local foods” is about personal and community control of life’s basics. It’s about positive action, fairness, trust. It’s about beauty (“It blew my mind that flowers was our No. 1 seller.”—Rodney Williams, Sr.). It’s about real democracy. It’s about whole health—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.

Hence, Austin Harvest’s slogan: “Building community through fresh food.” 

Thirty-nine years ago (1982), the first food policy council was created. The Knoxville FPC still exists, now a collaboration of the city and Knox County.

Thirty-six years ago (1985) the first Farm Aid concert was held on Sept. 22 in Champaign, Illinois.

This year — 2021 — on September 20-22, the first-ever national conference for food policy councils (FPCs) will be held in Kansas City, Missouri. FPC-like groups can be found all over the country and all are welcome to attend and explore the Power of Food — Cultivating equitable policy through collective action

In truth, I believe that FPCs are the next step in the environmental-climate-democracy movement — what I call the “real democracy” movement, begun by civil rights activists, feminists, and peace activists. Maybe by creating real democracy in our food & farm system, no one will feel the need to be a real gangster or a real conman. It’s no accident that 70-80% of the people leading FPCs and the U.S. food & farm movement are women.


If you can’t make the Power of Food conference, join the Food Policy Networks listserv and check out other FPN resources

My website, FoodFarmsDemocracy 
National Food & Farm Resources
Illinois Food & Farm Resources
Real Democracy

Brand new….
— Food Sovereignty in the USA: A Selection of Stories 
U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance
14 pages, a short selection of representative stories + short videos

Building Community Food Webs
New book by Ken Meter, Crossroads Resource Center (MN)
Civil Eats interview by Nancy Matsumoto
Ken has done “local food” assessments all over U.S. (including central Illinois).
This book synthesizes decades of field work. Very accessible writing.