Today, Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood is known for its rich, dynamic history–defined by the mingling of cultures and customs, and arts and entertainment. The historical tapestry of Winthrop Avenue in this neighborhood dates to the early urbanization of the north side of Chicago in the early 1900’s. At the time, according to the Hyde Park Herald, a “marvelous, delicately woven chain of armor,” stretched across the city through racially restrictive land covenants; part of post-World War I efforts to legally segregate Chicago communities like Uptown, only allowing Black residents to reside on 4600 Winthrop Avenue. These social barriers, upheld through the late 1920’s to 1940’s, were interwoven into the neighborhood’s urban fabric.
In the early 1920’s, additional rail lines and prominent theaters, arts, and entertainment venues such as the Aragon Ballroom, Riviera Theatre, Uptown Theatre, and Green Mill Jazz Club attracted a wealthy business class, establishing Uptown as a premier commercial and entertainment destination on Chicago’s north side while inviting downtown dwellers as a summer resort town. As the upper social classes grew in Uptown, the construction of luxury hotels, apartment buildings, and high-end homes developed throughout the community. At the same time, Black residents moved to Uptown to support this growing community through service jobs. While Black families were segregated to living along Winthrop Avenue, they formed a tightly knit, resilient community despite systemic resistance to their presence within the neighborhood.
The 1950’s brought major changes to Uptown. As wealthier residents ventured to the suburbs, former high-end hotels were converted into affordable units. Appalachian, Indigenous, and East Asian American immigrant communities, including the city’s working class, were drawn to the affordability of Uptown. Yet the foundation of this migration to the Uptown area was first laid by the Winthrop family who paved the way for a developing community that exists in Uptown still today.
The prevailing stories of community establishment, growth, resilience, and fortitude inspired the original creation and dedication of the Winthrop Family Historical Garden. In the mid-2000s, through community engagement efforts, the idea of transforming several vacant parcels of land into a community greenspace on the narrow 4600 block took shape. The Winthrop Family Historical Garden was dedicated in the Fall of 2009 thanks to the leadership of Uptown United, along with several local leaders and volunteers. Yet 20 years after its initial dedication, the garden had become overgrown, no longer serving the community as originally intended. However, neighborhood desires for local food production and communal space following the pandemic in 2022 prompted the need to reinvest in this once beloved space. The development of a new design for the garden held fresh opportunities to share the untold story of the neighborhood. Today’s culturally diverse community is visualized through the design; as individual threads, woven together, forming a rich tapestry rooted in the neighborhood through past heritage and a rich cultural legacy.
Partnering with the client through a City of Chicago Public Outdoor Plaza (POP!) Grant on an expedited timeline, the design of the garden came to life over two months, integrating community preferences and feedback developed through a series of engagement opportunities. Construction of the garden took place the following three months, utilizing $150,000 of the grant funding and highlighting the agility of the MKSK team to take a representative idea and transform it into a constructed public space within an accelerated time frame.
Several innovative design approaches were taken by MKSK in the re-imagining of this space. In a densely populated urban area, where open space is scarce, flexibility offers the greatest potential for meeting community needs through public space. This flexibility is highlighted through the garden’s layered design; the multi-use space features 35 community garden plots, garden storage, several communal plazas, a vending shelter, and a performance area to house a diverse collection of community-oriented events and programming throughout all seasons of the year. By layering varied programmatic uses, the garden can be used during all times of day for gardening programs, family-oriented events, performances with music, food, and dancing, and on weekends for markets and craft fairs, all while supporting the community’s desire to produce their own food through sustainable urban agricultural practices.
Likewise, where most urban spaces contain hardscaped surfaces and impermeable materials, the garden utilizes porous aggregate paving and elevated planters to aid in stormwater management and reduce heat island effects. This approach applies sustainable design practices for a resilient and sustainable overlay on top of an already efficiently designed space.
In October 2022, Uptown United and the MKSK design team joined Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox, and Alderman James Cappleman, in celebrating the grand re-opening of the beloved Winthrop Family Historical Garden in Uptown, Chicago with a community-oriented ribbon cutting event. The event showcased the flexible ways the garden could be utilized by hosting local food vendors, musicians, community organizations and performances, while commemorating the legacy of the Winthrop families. With the recent re-opening of the garden this past fall, Uptown United looks forward to the continuation of programming within the space over the next three years through a diverse range of community events made possible through remaining funds available from the POP grant. The re-established community garden has already set the stage to continue the impactful legacy the Winthrop family set for the community over 100 years ago.
Winthrop Family Historical Garden | Chicago, Illinois | MKSK
Landscape Architect: MKSK
Project Partner: Uptown United and the Chicago Department of Planning and Development
Community Land Trust: NeighborSpace
Community Designer/Contractor: Human Scale
Muralist/Artist: Mauricio Ramirez