31 century museum in Chicago

City Farm (Self-Sustaining)

Marissa Lee Benedict

For the first of our field trips, in an effort to identify and connect with “contemporary spirit” in Chicago, we visited Ken Dunn at City Farm; by the end of our visit, we were convinced that Ken Dunn is an embodiment of “contemporary spirit” in every sense of the concept. For over 40 years, Ken has invested himself in developing practical, realizable models for urban sustainability. Unlike the episodic tendencies typical of hobby urban gardens, or the wildly impractical propositions of often well meaning but uninformed artists and academics, Ken has brought to his work the unwavering dedication and community driven investment of his Mennonite farming background. Building upon the simple yet profound principle of connecting overlooked material resources with overlooked human resources – an idea Ken began to develop in the 1960s while studying philosophy at the University of Chicago – Ken has cultivated a series of Resource Centers in Chicago’s most undervalued communities. Ken’s work is particularly inspirational as it provides living, functioning solutions to social and agricultural problems. Although his model is specific to Chicago, his ideas have the flexibility and potential to be adapted on a national or global scale.

Entering the unobtrusive gate of City Farm, currently stationed at the corner of Clybourn and Division, you climb upward, scaling the mountain of compost that is the basis for the farm’s productivity and success. For the past 30 years Ken has been able to literally pick up and move the soil that is City Farm to a series of different locations around Chicago. Radically altering the idea that a farm must be rooted in the ground – unmovable and permanent in nature – Ken has developed a system of mobile farming. Everything, from the posts to the compost, can be packed up and transported to a new location if a lease runs out or the lot is re-zoned. The farm is a self-sustaining system – both agriculturally and economically – and as such, any empty lot in Chicago has the potential of being a City Farm. Ken told us he hopes to expand the project to the more than 20,000 empty lots that dot the city, feeding the entire urban population of Chicago with hyper-locally grown crops. As Ken sees it, there is no need for multi-million dollar skyscrapers to put farms in the middle of the city; a hundred years ago we had developed an agricultural system that functioned more then adequately for thousands of years, we merely need to relocate and recontextualize that knowledge for our contemporary situation.

As a class, we were moved by Ken’s tireless, passionate energy and his deep dedication to practical innovation. As a farmer, philosopher, artist, social worker and business owner, Ken’s model is not one of flashy technology or temporary solutions; he is invested in making change happen now with the tools and knowledge we already possess. We have the resources, it is up to us to see them, value them and put them to good use.

Joel Parsons

The most exciting thing about City Farm is its insistence on the possibility of movement. The farm’s identity isn’t tied to any particular location, it’s found in the soil, which can be picked up and moved in a matter of hours. Uncoupling the farm from the idea of place allows for freedoms that most place-bound farms can’t know, freedoms which allow City Farm to exercise a sustaining flexibility in the face of bureaucracy. Also, I am 26 years old and I had never eaten a nastertium until I went to City Farm. Thank you, Ken Dunn.

Lauren Goldstein

Ken Dunn had a very clear idea when he decided to turn vacant lots into small farms 35 years ago, and his approach has allowed his farm to move through 25 sites during that time period. He was simply trying to use the vacant land around the city in a way that was beneficial, useful and resourceful. The farm was a beautiful site, and its location in the foreground of the Chicago skyscrapers was a haunting reminder that this city doesn’t allow for much opportunity in agriculture. Ken’s efforts have certainly been recognized on a small scale, and with the movement towards more sustainable agriculture slowly growing, I hope that City Farm will expand beyond it’s home.

Katie Waddell

Speaking with Ken Dunn (founder of the Resource Center and City Farm) is always enlightening. He is one of the few who puts his idealism into practice and sticks with it. Like Theaster Gates, Ken is also a steward. He demonstrates contemporary spirit through his organization, his actions, his conversation, and, not to lapse into total hippyspeak, yes, his vibe.

When we went to City Farm I scribbled down some notes from the lecture and conversation with Ken Dunn. I have tidied them up and reproduced them below:

Principles of Sustainability:
We take more pleasure in production than consumption.
All men seek after the good, they only differ as to what that is.

Engagement with the dominant economy causes good people to do bad things.
The business of life is not to be full. The business of life is to remain hungry. A capitalist system needs decline to function.
There is an inherent parallel between our relationship to material resources and our relationship to people. We don’t vote for our wars, we buy them.

Everyone at the table eats.
We must dignify human life.
We must reorient human activity on a massive scale.
We must invest in others as a moral practice.

Declarations and Conclusions:
Communicate to others.
Consider natural processes and complete cycles.
Invent new systems.
We are producers, not consumers.
Accept all offers of partnership.

Rebecca Hernandez

Although not my first trip to City Farm, Ken Dunn’s words resonate with me in a way that makes each visit feel new. As before, I left the farm feeling hopeful and inspired. There’s the farming piece, the production of food for City Farm’s neighbors, that first strikes me. The goal and practice of feeding ourselves and our community well should be so simple yet has become so darn complicated. The longer you are in conversation with Ken, though, you understand that farming is only a demonstration for a larger philosophy. A philosophy that addresses the value of human beings, and the development of cultural practices that place that value as primary over the the consumption of goods, especially industrially produced ones. Finding ways to harness the inspired emotions of those that leave the farm wanting to take action is now a challenge we should all be seriously considering.

Kamin Lertchaiprasert

To transform society. It have to begin to change One’s thought by education.

Share Published on Sep 20, 2011 at 4:35 am.
Filled under: 31 century museum in Chicago
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