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  • Susan Carlotta Ellis

South Merrill Community Garden invites its neighbors to create a safe space

Fifteen years after it became a community garden, the space cultivates healing for young and old.

BY: Susan Carlotta Ellis, City Bureau

On a hot August day this summer, volunteers helped to plant milkweeds at the South Merrill Community Garden in South Shore, as a way to attract butterflies and other pollinators. Then the kids sat down to paint colorful canvases of their favorite butterflies.

“I like watching how other people are helping out to help the community,” said 9-year-old Nadeem Okoe, as he enjoyed a slice of pizza. His brother Khaleel, 7, interjected, “Also digging in the dirt. It’s fun.”

That’s the idea, said Natalie Perkins, education coordinator at the garden, who worked with local nonprofit NeighborSpace and Chicago Botanic Garden to host the event. “[When] families and kids come into the garden, they tend to take more ownership of things on their block,” she said. “The garden is an anchor from trauma. You have to have joy.”

Formerly named O’Keeffe School Victory Garden, it was created after a traumatic event in the neighborhood 15 years ago, when 10-year-old Troy Law, a student at the nearby elementary school, was killed. An O’Keeffe teacher, Emily Kenny, helped to organize the student-led effort. In the decade and a half since then, South Merrill Community Garden has gone through several transformations, and parts of the neighborhood still struggle with violence and drugs—but the garden remains a safe healing space for neighbors, young and old.

Located in the middle of the 7000 block of South Merrill Avenue, amidst large rental, co-op and condo buildings, visitors can find respite on a bench under a shady evergreen tree near the stone memorial installed and dedicated to Troy after his death. An additional sculpture memorial to Troy was designed by artist Devon McCoy and placed this year. Bags of fresh veggies and herbs hang on the garden’s fence, free to any neighbor passing by.

Gardens bring harmony and balance to the community

-Dianne Hodges, team leader of South Merrill Community Garden, shared with me during a spiritual cleansing of the block that the garden hosted this summer.

According to the mission statement on their website, the garden “educates and promotes a sacred space for the health and well being of the intergenerational members of our community through gardening, engagement and accessibility to nature’s bounty.

Besides free Saturday Camp programming for children during the summer, South Merrill Community Garden also offers programming for seniors that includes music, gardening and exercise activities. Recently they rocked the garden with a Senior Self Care Summer Brunch & Blues with Louisiana Al and a salsa night.

The garden has raised wood planter boxes for people with limited mobility, which former South Shore resident Dr. David Meltzer helped advocate for. Dr. Meltzer runs the Comprehensive Care, Community, and Culture Program (C4P) at the University of Chicago, which connects patients with community and social support as part of the healing process. “It is a joy to see our patients benefit from the wonderful activities and friendships the garden has helped to grow,” he said.

The thriving community garden has come a long way since Hodges took over the space in 2015, after the lot fell into disrepair around 2010. “When we took over we had some older guys in their 40s, about 15 of them, that stood in front of the garden, drinking and stuff. That was their way of saying, ‘This is our space,’” she remembered.

It took years of work, from putting pressure on local landlords and elected officials to attending community policing meetings to working with community partners, not just to build the garden back up and host programming, but to build relationships with neighbors. South Merrill Community Garden is now an anchor in the community. The garden has also brought larger partners in the door, such as a recent partnership with Millennium Park and the Illinois chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects to engage youth in community horticulture and landscape design.

​​“By interacting with those children, and helping them to possibly have a better quality of life, we are still gaining the trust of the people in the immediate area,” Hodges said.

Though gang violence hasn’t disappeared from the neighborhood, it’s a lot quieter now than when they started. “I’ve had a couple of older [gang members] come up to me and say they appreciate what we’re doing,” she added.

This summer there were two shootings within two weeks on this block, resulting in one death. Hodges acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done—and certainly not just by the garden—to keep the block safe and help it thrive. In particular, she has been lobbying local building owners to be proactive in screening potential renters and to hold renters accountable if they dump trash, neglect the property or deal drugs.

“The only way we’re gonna really clear this area is to increase the rents and try to attract a quality of people. The city needs to make owners, vacant condo owners and investors, responsible for the type of people that they decide to rent to,” she said.

The people of South Merrill Community Garden are rooted in their own history—from honoring the life of young Troy Law, to a recently installed seven-foot totem pole depicting the history of the neighborhood.

“The lower section talks about land acknowledgement, looking at the Indigenous groups that used to reside here before it was turned into South Shore. The center section talks about the history of the neighborhood itself. The very top is a tribute to [jazz saxophonist Jimmy] Ellis,” said Omar Rodriguez from local design nonprofit Human Scale, who installed the sculpture.

Looking to the future, Hodges said the group plans to expand its senior programming—hopefully weekly fitness events like chair yoga and line dancing for adults to access their inner child.

“Seniors that have never been in the garden before [get] an opportunity to see this little secret magical place in the middle of a block that they didn’t even know existed,” she said.

That consistency makes a big difference to the community.

“It’s a safe space for people to interact, where kids and adults can actually see some progress that they’re creating,” said Ibrahim Okoe, a South Shore resident and father of Nadeem and Khaleel, who helped to plant milkweed and paint butterflies on that hot August day.

“They call it Paradise on the Merrill. They’re changing the energy on the block. I think as they do that, some of those negative elements that we complain about in our communities start to go away.”

This story was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Chicago. Learn more and get involved at

Photos by Max Herman/City Bureau

Jaslyn Jackson, a regular visitor at the South Merrill Community Garden, inspects milkweed during a family workshop.

The South Merrill Community Garden was founded by O’Keeffe Elementary School in 2006 in memory of student Troy Law.

Ibrahim Okoe poses for a portrait with his sons Khaleel and Nadeem during a visit to the South Merrill Community Garden in South Shore.

Jahaziel and Jaslyn Jackson are regular visitors of the South Merrill Community Garden in South Shore and stop by to participate in a “Milkweed and monarch family workshop.”

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