A Garden and Some Hope Grow in Englewood

Safer, prouder neighborhood is Fredrika Lightfoot's quest

She works, she says, one weed at a time.

Shouldering her weed whacker in one of Chicago's most violent inner-city slums, Fredrika Lightfoot creates gardens: tidy lawns on what once were litter-strewn vacant lots, beds of pink and purple asters against the shadows of condemned buildings, small sanctuaries in streets overgrown with fear.

"I tell myself, 'I'll get those 10 weeds today, and those three tomorrow,' " says Miss Lightfoot, surveying a jungle-like lot near her home. "That gives me a goal, so I don't get discouraged."

In Englewood, the poor South Side district where Lightfoot cares for her mother, despair seems as invasive as the rag weed and elephant ears that push up through cracked concrete.

"Most of the people on this block are senior citizens. The rest are substance abusers," says Lightfoot during a walk down her street one summer morning. "The biggest obstacle I face is apathy."

She also faces hostility - from drug dealers, junkyard barons, and others who benefit from decayed and neglected property.

When Lightfoot started cleaning up the lot next door to a crack house at 6942 Stewart St., gang members threw firecrackers at her. When she enlisted city workers to tow abandoned cars off another lot, the local junkman hurled curses at her.

"I'm sort of a loner," she admits.

But Lightfoot hasn't given up. Since 1994, when she was inspired at community meetings for Chicago's proposed empowerment zone - areas that give businesses economic incentives to set up shop - she has envisioned her gardens as stepping stones to a safer, prouder neighborhood. She has also found backing from city programs, which offer her manpower, materials, and ideas.

"I guess I got empowered," Lightfoot laughs. "I got to know my way around. I met the head of [the department of] streets and sanitation. When I did my first big cleanup and things were left undone, I told her and she took care of it."

So far, Lightfoot has completely or partly transformed six vacant lots near 69th and Stewart, her family's home for 40 years. First she clears away the heaps of trash - old mattresses, broken furniture, purses discarded by muggers - and spreads down wood chips to control the weeds. Next come compost and grass seed.

Her gardens aren't fancy. For flower planters, she uses old car tires that she paints white. For borders, she uses white-painted rubble from demolished buildings. For flowers, she pulls up the ugly weeds and cultivates the beautiful ones: Queen Anne's lace, sunflowers, wild petunias, and deep maroon coleus.

But like the maple trees lining Stewart Street, whose white-washed trunks are both stately and useful for police gauging the height of fleeing crime suspects, the grass and flowers softly deter wrongdoing. "Everyone sort of respects the green space," says Lightfoot. "It makes our neighborhood safer."

In small ways, the grassy plots are also nurturing the community. After a garden sprouted next door, the crack house at 6942 Stewart was not torn down as the city had planned, but renovated. A few weeks ago a family moved in.

Retired maintenance worker T.L. Young comes out most mornings now to water the flowers and pull weeds. He also mows the grass. "I just want to keep the place looking like somebody cares," says Mr. Young, a gangly man in a work shirt and baseball cap.

Across the street, a shy Flonie Davis peeks out her front door. The prim, white-haired woman is another of Lightfoot's gardener-recruits. "We want to make this someplace people want to live, not just where they have to live," says Mrs. Davis.

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