If it seems like every square inch in Chicago is being devoted to adding to the city's never-ending condo building construction,
NeighborSpace has a message: Think again.
NeighborSpace is a not-for-profit corporation created by the City of Chicago, Chicago Park District, and Forest Preserve District of
Cook County to support the expansion and conservation of small-scale open spaces in Chicago. NeighborSpace areas are open to
the public and focus on beautification, preservation, recreation, and community food production. Usually, the sites were, at one time,
vacant lots, railway embankments, river edges, and similar properties.
For the past seven years, NeighborSpace has worked with various community groups to acquire land and own it on behalf of
local partners. In this way, the organization can help secure gardens, parks, and other areas that have been threatened. Currently,
NeighborSpace owns 35 sites and leases four in 31 wards across the city. Moreover, about 20 more sites are in the process of joining
I recently sat down with the very amiable executive director of NeighborSpace, Mary Jo Schnell, at one of the group's sites (4643
N. Drake in Albany Park).
Prior to her position at NeighborSpace, Mary Jo was the Kids Cafe National Program Administrator at America's Second Harvest,
the nation's largest domestic hunger relief organization. Mary Jo has lived in Chicago most of her life and currently resides in
Lakeview. She's also a longtime player in many of the GLBT sports leagues in Chicago, especially softball along the Lakefront.
Even though the revamping of the Drake lot is not yet complete, the undeniable beauty of the 'work in progress' underscores the
effort that NeighborSpace and community groups are putting into keeping Chicago green.
Read more story below....
Windy City Times: How does the whole process, from appeal to land acquisition, take place?
Mary Jo Schnell: If a community feels like there's a threat to the property they're trying to beautify or if they want to make sure there's
never going to be a threat ...
WCT: What form would the threat take?
MJS: [It could be] development going out in the area. So, the community would call us and see if we could hold it on their behalf.
We're like a land trust in that we purchase properties on behalf on groups. We then go through a review process; we go over the
application, take a look at the site, see if the owner wants to sell. Then, we present the information to the board and we see if
[procuring the property] is in the budget.
WCT: So [I would imagine] you can't do anything if the owner doesn't want to sell?
MJS: Not unless we develop a good relationship with [the owner] or find a way to make the donation tax-deductible. (laughs)
WCT: Or have some incriminating photos...
MJS: (Laughs) I don't think we've ever done that! Actually, [whether the owner sells] is a point of feasibility. If the owner's not
willing to sell, come hell or high water, there's not much we can do about it—but we have a pretty good track record. However, if it is
feasible, we can get a motion to acquire, gather some momentum, and develop a strategy to get the site.
WCT: How long does the average procurement take?
MJS: I'd say the review process takes about four to six months. The actual procurement would take about one to two years.
WCT: So in that timespan someone else could swoop in ...
MJS: ... Unless we manage to put a hold on the property. We can put a hold on the property or use other mechanisms to keep it.
WCT: Give me a little of the history of NeighborSpace.
MJS: NeighborSpace started in 1996 as a non-profit group. Folks got together to see how much green space was in Chicago and
realized that there was no group to protect the green spaces that communities developed.
It is a unique organization in that it is the only one in Chicago that purchases property on behalf of community groups and holds it
for those groups so they can develop beautiful Edens like the one we're sitting in as well as senior gardens (areas tended to by the
elderly) and urban agriculture projects. The only other space like this one is River Bank Neighbors on the north bank of the Chicago
WCT: Do you also take over easements [that involve using another's real estate for a specific purpose]?
MJS: No. The conservation easements have not been done. We're launching a strategic planning process for the organization so
that might be something the board considers.
We're more of the land trust where we not only own the land but also extend insurance liability. If something happens to someone
using this site, [that person] is covered. We're a bit of a model nationally. We've also received a couple of awards for the precedents
WCT: Is it true that you got three parcels of land from the city for a buck apiece?
MJS: Yes. Different resources being different opportunities to our organization. The City of Chicago is one of our partners and
[ultimately made the connections that got us the land]. Environmental research and aldermanic support are very important.
WCT: Does NeighborSpace have a connection to the GLBT community?
MJS: Insofar as there are probably some gardeners out there, but there's no formal connection. But there are different groups, like
block clubs, who we sign on with. If there's any group that has designs on preserving a lot, [it] can let us know.
WCT: Like Gays for Gladiolas ...
MJS: (Laughs) And then we can have a float in the parade ...
The neat thing is that the GLBT community has a wonderful sense of community. We're everywhere—including all areas of the non-
profit [sector]. It's a wonderful testament to the diversity of our community and its commitment to change and social justice.
WCT: Now how has technology helped NeighborSpace?
MJS: It's been huge. We're about to launch our first Web site. We plan to tell the public who we are, how to donate, and how to get
involved. We're also looking into a password-protected site where we can create chat rooms and bulletin boards for the group.
WCT: Chat rooms?
MJS:(Laughs) We're talking about sharing gardening information, honey!
We're really looking forward to the Web site. We're looking into reaching out to various communities, because different groups
have different access [capabilities] to the Internet. Our board president had an excellent idea: setting up some kind of system with
There's also this other great organization that's a fantastic resource for information; GreenNet ( www.greennetchicago.org ). So
folks can find out about agencies that help community gardeners. As for our site, it will kick in around July.
In my home office, I have an IBM ThinkPad and I anticipate using that to take notes and upload the information to the Web site.
WCT: What has been the most rewarding thing for you so far?
MJS: Good question. The people I've met—on the board, in the office (like Margaret), and community groups—have made this a
'coming home' for me. I feel like this [position] is affirming. The people on the board are just amazing and I just love working with
I'm at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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