Riverbank Neighbors keeping biodiversity alive on a stretch of the Chicago River

A group of neighbors on the north side of Chicago took a neglected quarter-mile stretch of land just south of Montrose along the Chicago River and turned it into a haven of nature.

Located in North Center, the Ravenswood Neighbors garden space attracts volunteers from areas extending around its own neighborhood.

The group was started in 1994 by a group of concerned and motivated residents, including Pete Leki and Roark Johnson.

“[This is] a focus for our community,” Leki said of the Riverbank Neighbors garden. “We eat together, we party together. People have gotten married here.”

“I have lived in the neighborhood since 1991, and have officially been doing this since 1994,” Roark Johnson recalls. “Before that, it was not a destination.”

Johnson says that when they would visit the riverbank, the trails were impassible. People would slip down them, and that there was nothing attractive about the land. In fact, the river wasn’t even as clean so there wasn’t the kayak and canoe traffic the north branch sees today.

The group of volunteers led by Leki and Johnson began to shore up the edges to build retaining walls on the river using stakes and boards which later evolved into stone and recycled concrete.

Leki recalls asking himself, “what did this land look like a long time ago?”

He notes that in the countryside nowadays, all ones sees is industrialized farmland.

“It was hard to find anyplace in its landscape form that looks what it looked like 300 years ago,” Leki said.

What the group has now on the bank across the river from Horner Park most looks like the land did in northern Illinois hundreds of years ago.

From Prairie Dock, oak trees and Milkweed that is home to monarch butterflies to raccoons, beavers, coyotes and blue heron nests, the area boasts flora and fauna indigenous to the area.

Neither the plants nor the animals just appeared. First, the flowers, shrubs, grass, and trees were grown at nearby Waters Elementary School.

“We started this process of planting gardens [at Waters] at the same time the riverbank restoration began,” says Pete Leki who also founded the Waters Ecology Program and which he has directed it for over two decades.

The majority of the plants were grown at that location and later brought to the riverfront. That includes the seeds of four oak trees aging over 300-years-old that live on the property of Waters Elementary School.

“It’s been a great way to build a community,” Johnson said. “It’s really allowed me to meet neighbors.”

Neighbor Julie Peterson shared that sentiment saying, “I moved here for this.”

A steward of the land, Peterson brings her daughter to the riverbank to her about plants and animals. In fact, the 4-year-old is quite literate to the characteristics of Prairie Duck!

“When you think of Chicago, you do not think of this,” said Holly Swyers, a volunteer gardener with Riverbank Neighbors.”

She has lived in the neighborhood for only a few years but was excited to see that there was an oasis like this in her new area.

“I never knew how to get my foot in the door,” she recalls of her previous neighborhoods. The organization of the Riverbank neighbors gave Swyers “an opportunity to have a community that was willing to reach out.”

She says she was able to talk to the volunteer gardeners and to learn stuff.

“I can start sharing that with other new neighbors,” Swyers said. “It’s a way of connecting that I don’t always know if we have in the city.”

The group has monthly workdays at the river where they perform work activities, but share fellowship in the form of book readings, song, discussion, and food.

Johnson says the best way to get something started in one’s own neighborhood is to have dedicated leadership, someone who inspires others.

“We’ve really grown with volunteers,” Johnson said. “When they see what’s possible, they want to do it too.”

The city of Chicago boasts more projects like these – in fact, there are over 109 community garden sites located in 33 wards across the city. For more information on those projects or to locate one in your own neighborhood, visit www.neighbor-space.org.

You can visit the site tucked on the shore of the Chicago River at the end of Berteau any time during daylight hours. To learn more about the Riverbank Neighbors, attend a group event, or discover work days, visit www.riverbankneighbors.org.