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Greening the Rooftops of Paseo Boricua

Joined by State Representative Cynthia Soto, Puerto Rican Cultural Center Executive Director Jose Lopez, and educator Carlos de Jesus, among others, Matthew Rodriguez cuts the ribbon for the new hydroponic rooftop greenhouse attached to Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School.

Two years ago to the day, on March 3, 2009, I recall standing in the science classroom at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School (PACHS), 2739 W. Division St, during a tour of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. I listened as teacher and Assistant Principal Carlos de Jesus outlined a plan for a rooftop greenhouse to be constructed on the building, offering students tangible applications of their studies in biology and botany.

A beautiful dream, I thought, but how could this possibly happen in our lifetimes? Like Frank Lloyd Wright’s fabled mile-high skyscraper, or the closer-to-home Bloomingdale Trail, ambitious projects often seem the stuff of dreams, perhaps never to see the light of day, or at least leaving the initial planners a bit grayer around the temples than they’d hoped by groundbreaking. And rooftop urban agriculture only happens downtown, doesn’t it? Where the tourists and corporate headquarters, and therefore the capital, flow more freely?

But I stood in that same classroom yesterday, just two short years later, watching amidst a standing-room-only crowd as PACHS Principal Matthew Rodriguez cut the ribbon for that very greenhouse. And despite my own lack of religious leanings, the experience seemed nothing short of a miracle, nothing less than sacred.

Of course the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC), either alone or in partnership, has made miracles happen before. A walk down Division Street between the mighty steel flags is a reminder of their living legacy on Paseo Boricua. But that’s only part of the story. There’s the community-run bilingual newspaper, La Voz del Paseo Boricua, built largely out of sweat equity and volunteer labor, showcasing the positive stories happening every day in Humboldt Park. There’s Vida/SIDA, an HIV/AIDS resource center which has offered bilingual and bicultural health services—including free HIV testing and condoms—for over twenty years, and more recently has sponsored a transgender beauty pageant and a transgender business incubator.

There is the retail corridor of Paseo Boricua itself, fostering local ownership of indigenous businesses. There is the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, the La Casita community garden, the fought-for and restored Crucifixion de Pedro Albizu Campos mural on North Avenue, and the many annual parades and festivals. There is the popular Muévete exercise program, recently featured in the New York Times; the NIH-funded Block-by-Block diabetes intervention project; and the Ciclo Urbano bike shop, poised to launch a bicycle manufacturing program, which will create jobs by constructing mobile produce delivery systems on wheels.

And of course there is PACHS itself, a school for students that conventional education forgot, where young people are encouraged to find their way by studying their own history, exploring and celebrating their unique identities, becoming local leaders, and eventually entering college, careers, or other means of contributing to the larger community.

One of those students delivered a piece of original writing as part of yesterday’s greenhouse ribbon-cutting: an irreverent and on-point “Green Middle-Finger Manifesto” to all the naysayers; all those who would fill her local community with alcohol, fast food, and bags of potato chips rather than healthy produce; all those who doubted this vision was possible.

Visitors tour the new rooftop greenhouse at PACHS.

But possible it was. Tangible it was. Though the continued hammering was a reminder of the labor invested in this up-to-the-minute addition to the school, visitors were invited to walk through the greenhouse structure, feeling its sturdiness, witnessing the young tomato plants and pepper and cilantro seedlings—which will form the basis of sofrito, an iconic staple of Puerto Rican cuisine—and ultimately understanding this project as a fitting tribute to Puerto Rican author and activist Juan Antonio Corretjer, whose birthday is celebrated by PRCC annually on March 3.

The greenhouse project, while making significant contributions to the PACHS science curriculum, will cast an even wider net of impact. This structure, which received administrative and/or financial support from a diverse portfolio of sources—including 26th Ward Alderman Roberto Maldonado, 4th District State Representative Cynthia Soto, the Chicago Community Trust’s Fresh Taste Initiative, the Humboldt Park New Communities Program, and private contributions—is intended as just one of twenty rooftop greenhouses to eventually dot Paseo Boricua. This network will form the basis of a homegrown organic food system, providing affordable produce to Humboldt Park, which has been designated a food desert.

This is an integrated community vision of health, wellness, education, and self-actualization writ large. I’ll never bite into a tomato the same way again.

Seedlings will eventually produce vegetables that teach PACHS students science and provide affordable, organic produce to the Humboldt Park community at large.

The Puerto Rican Cultural Center welcomes donations of dollars and/or volunteer labor to advance this vision. They are also seeking investors for a new fresh-produce cooperative. Those interested may contact Raul Echevarria at raule@prcc-chgo.org or Jose-Luis Rodriguez at 773-278-6737.

Posted in Community News