As a loud graffetied freight train rumbled by an inner city neighborhood in western Chicago, and sunlight glinted off shards of broken glass, Nicky von Kondrat was gazing over the 17 chicken and three goats on her plot of urban farmland. Oh, and all while tapping neighborhood trees for home-made maple syrup.
Though the two visions, one of run-down housing in a low-income neighborhood and another of a bountiful natural harvest, may seem at odds, they melded together in Nicky’s backyard.
Originally from Maine, Nicky moved into the neighborhood when high renting prices made purchasing a home in East Garfield Park with low monthly installments the best financial option.
“I was the only white girl in the neighborhood,” said Nicky, who moved in sixteen years ago. Though she loved the southern hospitality around town, she acknowledged that it was an unlikely place to raise a family. However, her five vacant lots, about a quarter of an acre, left plenty of open space to plant new seeds.
“Our kids inspired us. We live in such an unnatural environment especially in the inner-city so we had to work hard to connect them to their environment. That’s why I’m in a sugar shack right now in my backyard making maple syrup,” explained Nicky.
Though she had no previous agricultural experience, 44-year-old Nicky, her husband, Erick, and their two homeschooled kids produce jams, pickled foods, eggs, maple syrup, and cheese from her goats– with more than enough for the family, to sell at the farmer’s market, and to trade with neighbors.
“I’ve learned every single thing about farming from YouTube, so anybody, anybody, can do this. People come to this farm and think that they can’t do this, but people can do this.”
Nicky, who is preparing to buy their first “mini cow,” also added that building up to their current stage was a gradual process. “Every year I take on another thing. It’s not like we did this all at once.”
Not only have the once vacant land plots of Nicky’s farm undergone a dramatic transformation, so has the neighborhood. There’s a growing influx of young artists and a 9-block core epicenter of urban farming activity.
“There’s a lot of people who are doing exactly what we’re doing,” said Nicky. She was the first to start farming in the neighborhood, but attributes its growing proliferation to an organic trend that reflected people’s natural inclinations.
“[Farming] is really inside of all of us. It changes you, it wakes something up inside of you, and that’s really beautiful,” said Nicky.
She likened their neighborhood urban farming trend to how art tends to cultivate in certain areas. “As people see each other doing it, it catches on. People learn from each other, we share, we coop and it grows just like any other thing.”
Nicky sees micro-urban farming communities as a gateway to tackling larger questions about realizing where your food is coming from and the larger goal of connection.
“Connection is what keeps us alive. I don’t care if you’re four or forty-four…[farming] will change the way you see your environment.”
However, Nicky still sees her neighborhood as a long way off from having a trendy corner café. She pointed to significant socio-economic problems and a whole generation of children being raised by their great-great-great grandmother:
“There’s literally a lack of connection that children are born into at no fault of their own. If you’re not connected to yourself or another human being in the world, how are you going to care if you shoot someone in a gang or where you buy your food.”
Nicky’s solution? “I honestly believe that the only way to repair that is to give [the children] a pet or some land to put their fingers in. There’s some healing energy there.” Nicky commented that though inner-city kids might not have a person to connect to, they could connect to the natural energy around them.
“This isn’t about this neighborhood, this is about an activity of sustainability and connection to your environment…you can do this anywhere,” she said. Nicky’s urban farm also operates as an airbnb.