Blooms on the Block: Chicago Eco House

In the heart of Englewood you’ll see immaculate hues emanating from down the block. Exotic reds, yellows, and greens are floating throughout the dangerously hot summer air, but beyond aesthetics these children of the earth serve as tools of liberation for the people around them. The story of the Chicago Eco House is one of grace, perseverance, and hope for a future more equitable than our present.

Selfie with Quilen Blackwell

The seeds for the Eco House were planted long before the first germination. In the lecture halls of UW Madison, Quilen Blackwell became acquainted with the history of fighters. George Washington Carver, Booker T Washington, and Madam CJ Walker were among a few of the icons for his inspiration.

From a middle-class background himself, Quilen looked around and wondered how he could have so much while many have so little. His appreciation for history coupled with his passion for justice unfurled into a long career of community organizing. Quilen’s enrollment at seminary school in Forest Park eventually lead him to Chicago, but it wasn’t until he began teaching and volunteering with Team Englewood that he could grasp the severity of the situation for many Chicago kids. The bare necessities: a healthy meal, stable housing, safe passage to school, were often absent in many of their lives. Education is often the last thing on a child’s mind when survival is questionable. Recognizing the dire situation, Quilen moved his family to Englewood, bought a small house, an adjacent patch of land, and began cultivating his vision to build a sustainable operation in service of his community. Thus, the Eco House was born.

“Eco house was started in 2014. We have a mission of using sustainability to eliminate inner-city poverty. We have four sites in Chicago with two in Woodlawn. This site in Englewood is our flagship site — the first flower farm we built. We also have one on the westside in Garfield Park, and one in Detroit.

Our program is built into two tracks. We have one educational program where we work with CPS students. We catch them at an early age to get them interested in this type of work. In the summer we have four apprentices who are all teenagers/young adults. Two of them are now hired staff by us. We are still small, still growing, but everyone has to start somewhere.”

The entire farm is off-grid, utilizing a rainwater collection system to bring life to the lot. The biodiversity is self-evident. Chickens can be heard clucking and vying for attention in the background while bees fly uncomfortably close around your head. The amount of life coexisting with the concrete landscape teleport you into a greener parallel universe where the planet and its inhabitants learn to coexist.

“For many kids, this is their first time putting their hands in the dirt and playing with chickens. There’s a big part of this that’s about trying to bring that connection back, especially in urban spaces between humanity and Mother Earth. You begin to look at the world differently. You feel like it unlocks creativity, particularly for young people, because you start looking at things totally differently. When you come back here in the Fall, you’ll see we have raspberries and the kids are like ‘Oh, wait. I can grow food back here?’ Then they start thinking, well, what else is possible?”

Undeniably serene, the farm’s become a sense of pride for the community. The operation behind the bloom is one of purpose and calculation. Quilen’s not content with selling a couple bouquets, he wants to change the economic trajectory of entire communities.

“About 80% of flowers you see at grocery stores or your local flower shop are from international imports. There’s a huge space in the floral market for domestic flower production. Chicago has a substantial market for flowers when you think about weddings, Quinceañeras, Bar Mitzvahs, birthdays, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day — all these special events. It’s one of those things people don’t think about. When you go into a hotel and you see flowers in the lobby, those flowers are changed out every week. It makes sense economically to focus on flowers. Everyone also knows about the vacant lots on the south and west side. We wanted a model that could be scaled up, because we aren’t just interested in trying to create a business. We want to build a new industry in the city.”

Beyond the Eco-House, there are countless other charities aimed at “improving” the conditions of poor kids in the city. Fly-over charities occasionally visit to do their good deed for the year. The rich elite donate a small portion of their fortune, creating a distrust between residents and benefactors. Why trust the charity of someone who has no interest or care in your life and is probably going to be gone within a few years? Why trust these charities or Eco-House for that matter? Well for one, Quilen’s roots run deeper than most. He lives in the community he helps, and sees the problems firsthand.

“We put a sense of urgency in our work. If we didn’t live here, we could look at it as, ‘Oh, we’re doing this good thing’, we’re teaching you how to read or teaching you how to prep for school. At the end of the day I get to go back to my nice, safe, comfortable home. The kids who are living here, they still have to go back to a home where maybe food’s not going to be on the table. Maybe they’re couch surfing or maybe things aren’t safe. Maybe there’s domestic violence or whatever else the case may be.”

In unequivocally perilous times, it’s easy to lose hope in the future, especially in a place like Englewood. The city’s administration has written you off, major media publications demonize you on the airwaves, and every so often a tragedy shocks the community. To stay optimistic in the face of the seemingly insurmountable adversity is to be insane, brave, or both. Keen on his history, Quilen acknowledges the struggle of those that came before him, and uses their story as motivation to keep his spirit intact. 

“Historical figures like Booker T Washington, George Washington Carver, Madam C.J. Walker are my inspiration. The most inspiring part about their lives is that they were able to create a very real and viable economic base in the black community at a time when Jim Crow was around. Where people gang lynch on a daily basis and it was codified in the laws that black people are less than white people. They were still able to do these great things. I look at them and I’m like man, what’s my excuse?”

The strongest deterrent to the paralyzing fears of the future is action. Quilen’s taken that action by building a sustainable operation for the people, in a place where many have been written off. He’s confident that with time his dream will be realized and we can begin to convert all vacant lots into tools for the people. If you are in a position to help Quilen and the Chicago Eco House achieve their vision, then please donate to the Kickstarter campaign below.