On a gray plot of land vacant since 1949, urban farmer Dave Snyder wants to give Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood a taste of what he calls “the Golden Age of Apples.” “One hundred years ago there were maybe 15,000 varieties of apples commercially available in the U.S.,” he said. “America’s crop was the apple.”
Most of those are gone forever, but perhaps 1,500—ten percent—remain. As agriculture industrialized, its incredible gains in productivity came at the expense of crop diversity. Small farms died out, and with them went thousands of heirloom fruits and vegetables grown to suit specific local conditions and palates.
Snyder created the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project, CROP, to give Red Delicious, Granny Smith, and Gala apples some competition. By opening the orchard up to the public, he hopes a sense of community will grow alongside strange apple cultivars like the Jefferson and Black Ben Davis. “We’ll invite people to come in,” said Snyder. “That we’re growing fruit is only one cool thing, one part of this.”
CROP started as a group of volunteers, but soon got the attention of Chicago’s department of Housing and Economic Development by teaming up with local urban farming and open space nonprofit NeighborSpace. In 2002, the Logan Square Open Space Project had called for the neighborhood farmers market to take over a lot surrounding the Chicago Transit Authority’s Blue Line, right where the train dives below ground between the California and Logan Square stations. The farmers market had become too big for that space, however, so the city bought the land from the CTA and transferred it to CROP.
About $1 million in tax increment financing paid for environmental remediation on the site, and will provide entirely new soil on the parking lot when construction begins soon. CROP will pay for site upkeep after that. Originally slated for early 2013, groundbreaking is now expected later this year. CROP brought on local urban designers Altamanu to craft the space, which will coexist with the graffiti gallery along CTA’s walls.
The site is along Milwaukee Avenue, a street that began as a Native American trail and now cuts a path from downtown through the trendy neighborhoods of Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square. An orchard is a far cry from the bars and restaurants popping up nearby, but Snyder said the neighbors will embrace CROP’s rare apples, as well as its cherries, plums, and paw paws—a fruit indigenous to the northern U.S. And the area has a long agricultural history. Before it was Logan Square, much of it was home to a farm tended by Martin Kimbell, a schoolteacher for whom Kimball Avenue was later named.
Snyder was first inspired by rare apples guru Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr. A former Seattle resident, he also spoke highly of that city’s Beacon Food Forest—an “edible park” for foragers in urban Jefferson Park. Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, London, and Austin all boast urban orchards, riding a wave of interest in urban agriculture among young city dwellers.
It is a way to get in touch with the past, said Snyder, but CROP is also about establishing roots for the future. “The trees that we’re planting will outlive those of us who are planting them,” he said.