Justin Booz, The Co-Op Op, and Free Food for South Side Chicago
Written by Alisha “Bee” Forrester Scott
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Introducing Justin Booz
Late one evening, I sat comfortably on my bed in Phoenix, Arizona, with a notebook and pen. By telephone, I interviewed Justin Booz in Chicago, Illinois. Booz (pronounced boose) is one of founders of The Co-Operation Operation. Justin is a living proof that with intention and focus, wild dreams may be made manifest. At present, he and his twenty-something hometown buddies are making history and positive names for themselves; tending raised bed garden boxes on a toxic land plot in the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois.
Justin Booz is a bona fide multi-talented artist, who also speaks French and plays the cello. He has a healthy sense of humor and a promotional smile that attracts friendly people. Justin is loved by many, and in my playful opinion would easily win if he ever ran as the Mayor of Chicago. Speaking on the benefits of working in the garden and garden project, Justin shares, “Boy, oh Boy, is it worth it.”
I originally met Booz inside of a posh San Francisco building, while volunteering as a live camera operator at an annual French cuisine event. He had arrived on-site before I had, and was also a volunteer cameraperson.
In between working, we talked and discovered that we both lived in the east bay of the San Francisco. And, we were both living life as low-income agricultural-activist-artists. We were supporting and amongst the citizens who openly protested Wall Street greed during historical movements such as Occupy Oakland.
Once, Justin and I had fun volunteering together on the lower portion of a public art piece drawn with sidewalk chalk, sponsored by the Chalkupy Oakland group. For our part, we drew blue and white-colored ocean waves.
While still living in the bay area, I visited Justin during his residency at a local urban-agricultural collective in Berkeley, called P.L.A.C.E. He was practicing the sustainable lifestyle that he admires. As friends living in different “neighborhoods” in the east bay area, we often talked often about our dreams of sustainable creativity. We agreed that freedom and free community food gardens would someday become a social staple.
Since that lifetime in the bay area, the last time I saw Justin was during Thanksgiving 2012. I was visiting family in Arizona for the holiday. He stopped for a brief stay in Arizona while on his way back home to Chicago.
Introducing The Co-Operation Operation
Are you living in the south side of Chicago? Do you like Kale, Cherry tomatoes, Onion, Zucchini, Chard, Cucumber, Radishes, Basil, Lettuce, or Nasturtium (edible flowers that taste like pepper)? Do you enjoy the positive physical and emotional benefits from consuming entire meals grown in organic gardens?
If you do, be prepared to fall completely in love with the creators of The Co-Operation Operation; a FREE organic food and urban community garden. Neighbors are emotionally re-investing in the neighborhood itself, and are sharing their social energy to power basic garden projects.
The urban garden that is being established is currently 5000 square feet, and features 41 beds for food production. The intention behind “The Co-Op Op” urban garden installation is to grow an organic garden that produces enough food for residents of the local neighborhood and surrounding community.
The Co-Op Op on FB already has 800+ Likes; mostly from the United States. A majority of online response originates from the Chicago-area, but does include both coasts. Booz reports, “People from over 20 countries like what we’re doing.”
About the Pullman Neighborhood and Garden Site
For general information about the Pullman neighborhood and its historic national role, search online for “Pullman rail cars”. About 1000 households exist in the Pullman area, which is about four blocks by four blocks large. The median age of the Pullman neighborhood is mid-thirties. The area’s racially diverse neighborhood has a smattering of wealthy people, but is historically poor.
Booz says that the hood is, “…not a hip, or, up-and-coming neighborhood. It’s kind of like a small town. You could cross the neighborhood in a 10-30 minute walk.” And, to be frank, no one living in the area ever expects community investment or the birth of profitable commercial potential.
The word “diversity” aptly describes the history of the Pullman area, and the many unfulfilled visions that have existed for this particular land parcel. One previous land use proposal included plans for a park, but there was no community interest and no investment capital to power any changes. A decade-long general rejection by The Alderman land council to incoming projects proposals, has felt morally degrading to the locals.
During the last 10-years, the local political system has been plagued with deadlock. Constant infighting and open disagreement have prevented the community at large from finding a beneficial use for the land. Environmental quality and local political leaders have been unable to unite the neighborhood.
The land parcel that The Co-Operation Operation is on had previously remained “un-zoned” because of a special designation by the Environmental Protection Agency as a “Super Fund Site”. What is a “Super Fund Site”? In a short description, a general health-hazard. Any land parcel labeled as a Super Fund Site means that it is utterly polluted and contaminated. Like many land plots in the county, the garden site was off-limits. That is, until The Co-Operation Operation began toxic remediation.
Interview with Justin Booz of The Co-Operation Operation
As I questioned Justin Booz about his personal experience living a sustainable lifestyle, I was surprised when he described his current existence, “Like living a mystery novel and thriller novel all at once.”
Alisha: What is the message you are sending, and whom are you sending it to?
Justin: The message that we are sending to the entire local neighborhood is “come and take vegetables!” In this way, the garden is benefitting the local neighborhood by improving it, and offering nourishment to the neighbors that want to become involved and fed for free.
A: How do they know to come and take vegetables?
J: Word of mouth invitations. Members of The Co-Operation Operation project are integrated into the established neighborhood network. The neighborhood response to the project is openly positive, and one staff member is typically on-site at the garden each day to greet and invite neighbors and curious others as they stop-by.
A: How do you describe what the project is accomplishing?
J: Providing a place for neighbors to nourish themselves with garden fresh produce is in itself a simple idea. Metaphorically, the garden space is opening a community door that was previously unable to be opened, and is filling a void. Symbolically, the regeneration of this working-class neighborhood is unexpected. It is hard for many locals to see that there is “Life” growing where people didn’t expect there to be. Everyone is excited at the early and present success of the project.
A: Who performs the ever-important social media tasks?
J: Monica Wizgird, another founder who is on The Co-Op Op’s Outreach Committee, is the one who consistently posts vibrant photo stories on Facebook for everyone to enjoy.
A: Do you and the group work to accomplish any specific food production goals?
J: No. The goal is to continue upgrading and developing the non-profit’s strategic organization and planning, and garden infrastructure. Operating a high-functioning garden is the focus of the non-profit. Currently, the The Co-Operation Operation urban garden project is protected by a 5-year land use contract signed in agreement with City of Chicago. At the end of the term, members operating the site have been told that the non-profit will be given the option to purchase the garden site.
A: Does The Co-Operation Operation plan to purchase the site?
A: Please report on one unexpected and positive personal benefit from your participation in the project?
J: I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the importance of community and volunteerism. And, I’m learning to build a more sustainable community through focused and collaborative development of a simple idea.
A: How about one unexpected personal challenge that you have encountered while working on The Co-Operation Operation project?
J: A rascal neighbor stalked members of our group, and attempted to sabotage the project by spreading very vicious lies. It was a draining, drawn-out experience.
A: What is The Co-Op Op planning to do during the Chicago winter?
J: A greenhouse made of common corrugated and greenhouse plastics, wood, steel, and concrete will help us to continue growing food in the cold. So, the group will be nurturing winter crops. We will continue with site improvements, including the exciting construction of a large water reservoir.
A: What are your personal plans for winter?
J: I plan to work on getting our residential row house off of the grid using recycled materials. First, gas; then electrical. I will be working at the garden as a paid staff member through a city-funded “Designated Work Site” program.
About the Angels
Some members of The Co-Operation Operation are currently living near the urban garden in an old row house. Busy with actively planning and documenting the project for historical purposes, project participants intend to duplicate their program at a second site. Everyone living at the old row house helps at the garden.
Erin Delaney: Co-Chair Garden Operations, Education, Events, Outreach and Volunteer Coordination
Viviana Gentry: Co-Chair Garden Operations, Press Relations, Outreach and Volunteer Coordination
Monica Wizgird: Secretary Fundraising Chairperson, Social Media, Photography, Press Relations, Education, Events
Justin Booz: Treasurer Building and Design, Press Relations
Elizabeth Nerat: Garden Operations, Outreach and Volunteer Coordination, Education, Events
Jessica Gorse: Education, Events, Outreach
Sara Koperdak-Meekins: Outreach and Volunteer Coordination, Legal liason
Reach The Co-Operation Operation
Phone number (773) 609-3389