The area around the Garfield Green Line station looks like a typical Chicago neighborhood scene. A busy divided street separates the station from the new Washington Park outpost of Peach’s, a Bronzeville mainstay, while the blocks immediately west of the station are filled with residential apartment buildings, fast food joints, and liquor stores. To the east lies the expanse of Washington Park, but it’s not the only place to find a bit of nature in this urban landscape. Just one block north of the station’s Park & Ride lot lies something most Chicago residents won’t find in their neighborhood: an entire acre of shining, golden sunflowers known as Sunflower City.
Sunflower City, a nonprofit organization founded by Rob McHugh, is on its third growing season at an otherwise-vacant lot at the intersection of East 54th Street. and South Prairie Avenue. While McHugh only planted on about one-tenth of the lot in 2017, he managed to fill the entire acre with sunflowers last year, and repeated the feat again this summer.
As McHugh leads me through the acre of sunflower-spotted land, he’s careful to point out each creature and different type of sunflower we pass by. Gray and brown grasshoppers hop around some vibrant yellow blooms—McHugh explains that this variety is called ‘Lemon Queen’—while monarch butterflies and bumblebees lazily drift among giants that stand over six feet tall. A pair of pale yellow birds chase each other through the field of east-facing sunflowers which, McHugh loudly explains over the roar of the passing “L” Green Line train, are heliotropic: they face the sun once they bloom, and continue to face east until they die as autumn approaches.
While McHugh does not consider himself a gardener, he wasn’t new to planting sunflowers when he began this project three years ago. Back in 2012, McHugh and other researchers planted sunflowers on a small empty lot in Kenwood, at 43rd and Greenwood, to investigate the healing properties of sunflowers planted in urban soils, which are often degraded and heavily contaminated with lead. His team hoped that sunflowers, which thrive in rugged soil, would pull out the lead and allow these vacant lots to be used for growing food. In the meantime, they hoped the products of the flowers, such as their seeds and oil, could be used as alternatives to fossil fuels and made into plastics.
“If you can take that seed oil and make fuel and there’s no lead in it, then you’re not releasing lead in the atmosphere,” said McHugh. In addition to pulling lead out of the soil, the amount of lead present in the sunflower seed is dramatically less than the original amount of lead in the soil, meaning seeds that are turned into biofuel released less lead into the environment than they pull out of it.
However, what impacted McHugh the most was not his research findings, but the community’s response to the sunflowers.
“The research and growing oilseed became secondary. What was happening was the response from the neighborhood,” said McHugh. “I had two little kids, six years old, who’d come out all the time. They’d move bricks around and help clean up and I’d go buy them things from the store…. When the flowers bloomed and their heads turned—that’s when you harvest—we were taking the flowers down and a group of teenagers walked by saying ‘Hey, don’t take the flowers down!’ One young woman said, ‘They’re beautiful, you’ve got to come back.’ Some older people in the neighborhood came over and said, ‘We’d really like to see you come back,’ and that’s what clicked.”
Four years after planting sunflowers in Kenwood, McHugh sold all of his research equipment and went back to school at Northeastern University to pursue his master’s in environmental science. However, his desire to continue planting sunflowers never left. After making connections with a few community organizations, McHugh met a friend of a friend who had an acre of land on the South Side, which would eventually become Sunflower City.
“This kind of work is not new, but [we must] do it on a bigger and bigger scale. We have 4,000 to 5,000 vacant acres of land in the city; we’re just mowing it. We can put it into service again for beauty, but also for clean energy development, expanding the scope of urban agriculture, getting people more involved. I had limited gardening skills, but this is a way to incrementally invite people into urban agriculture. Chicago has the rare opportunity to be the leader in urban agriculture, in my opinion,” said McHugh.
But, while urban agriculture is important, McHugh believes that the primary purpose of Sunflower City is to cultivate a form of natural beauty in an urban landscape.
“All of this is in service to beauty. If I look at something and find it to be beautiful and it’s in my neighborhood, then that belongs to me. No one can take that away from me,” said McHugh. “If you have this external beauty to connect with, what does this do with your internal beauty? If you can connect with your own inner beauty, what is that… self-discovery? Do I then get to reconnect to my own self-worth?”
McHugh remains uncertain about the extent to which his sunflowers can positively affect both residents and commuters in Washington Park, but he is dedicated to planting each summer until he figures it out. However, planting sunflowers isn’t free, and much of Sunflower City’s budget comes out of McHugh’s own pocket. With the exception of one small grant, McHugh relies on help from friends and volunteers to continue planting.
However, there is an alternative to relying on grants and donors. While McHugh is hesitant to sell the sunflowers, he acknowledges that cutting and selling sunflower bouquets would help him raise the funds for next summer.
“I could cut this field and start selling bouquets. But the best time to cut a sunflower is when it’s barely opened. If I cut the sunflower when it’s barely opened, then I’ve erased the most important part of this project,” said McHugh. “As long as I have a field to do it, I’ll figure out how to get enough money to plant it and weed it.”
Selling the sunflowers before their peak bloom is McHugh’s last resort. However, that doesn’t mean he’s opposed to visitors cutting a flower or two for themselves when they visit Sunflower City. If you’d like to observe the Washington Park sunflower field for yourself, McHugh estimates the field will be in bloom for another two to three weeks. Sunflower City is located at 5345 S. Prairie Ave.
Nikki Roberts is a senior journalism student at DePaul University. She writes about underground Chicago music and feminist pop culture, and enjoys reading hyper-local reporting on Chicago and its neighborhoods.