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Magical Realism: Hold the High Ground!

by Janice Christensen, Editor Emerita

First let me say how pleased and proud I am, at the glorious age of 98, to be asked to write an editorial for this “Mid-Century” 48th Anniversary Edition. I guess Madeleine and Abneris and Bodhi and the rest of the “gonzo-kid” journalists over at the Riverwest Currents decided I should write one last piece before I went completely ‘round the bend. Of course, there are those convinced I went ‘round that bend some decades back.

They asked me to reflect on the early days of the Currents, and some of the turning points from the early days of the century. What immediately springs to mind for me was the 4th Anniversary issue of the Currents, back in February of 2006.

Many of us had been stewing and agonizing since before the turn of the century about the development of our river valley land. I think 2006 was the year we finally decided to look at everything our neighborhood had become, and embrace it all.

That 4th anniversary issue was really memorable for me. I was Editor in Chief, and it was the very first time we published a “graphic journalism” piece, mixing journalistic writing with a cartooning illustration style. I remember thinking how ironic, in those days of computer-generated graphics and digital photography, that we were so enlivened by something like those hand drawings. Something so organic, so visceral, so “live-ware.”

I still remember how the cartoon portraits of the people interviewed made me feel they were speaking directly to me..

The portrait of Shawn Smart and Steve Johnson was especially poignant to me. By the time I reached Riverwest in 1999, the Jewel-Osco battle was all over but the shouting. I first met Shawn on the picket line outside the new store. Someone in the group pointed down the wild riverfront and said, “Mark my words, in a few years there will be huge condo buildings all up and down this riverbank. There won’t be a an inch of unoccupied space.”

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “The city has plans. I’ve seen them.”

It was my entre into activism in Riverwest. I got involved and stayed involved for fifty years.

And what a time it was. Some say we lost the battle for the riverfront, but we were inspired after that to “Hold the High Ground,” that phrase that has become the motto of Riverwest.

It was in 2006 that we were galvanized to preserve our neighborhood green space. There were some tough times, some friendships were tested, some things are sad to remember. But we’ve never regretted our decision to become a major part of the “green infrastructure” of the city.

It was such a victory for the neighborhood to keep Garden Park on Locust and Bremen for our farmers market. And the struggle to raise the money to buy GreenFolks Garden from the city was tough, but we prevailed. Those two choices turned out to be wise in retrospect, given how much our growing urban agriculture program and grass-roots food delivery system helped protect Riverwest from the food riots of the early Twenties.

Snails Crossing, the Linear Park, the Beerline Trail and the Green Education Center at the Aqueduct put Riverwest on the map for alternative urban transportation and environmental education.

Of course, the crown jewel of our greenspace plan was the Reservoir – the High Ground. It was our biggest challenge, because we had to take on everyone to get a new vision for that place, even people within our own neighborhood.

It was hard to say “NO!” to plans that seemed set in stone – plans that had already been made. Ironic as it seemed at the time, it was the folks who lived in the condominiums along the river who joined with the old neighborhood to renew our energy, get a new grip, and hold the High Ground. And in the end, the coalition that came together around unique in all the world.

It took that gadfly Godsil to bring all the pieces together.

And of course Vince and Tess and Dr. Dave and the rest of that irascible crowd. I guess I made my share of trouble, too.

It took the Free Skool and Cream City Collective to create the free jobs program that trained so many blacksmiths and water workers and soil makers and urban farmers – Riverwest actually created some new categories of professionals, thanks to the High Ground program. They really turned the tide of economic depression in our neighborhood, and started the financial rebirth of the city. I would go as far as to suggest they tipped the balance of change for our entire culture, ushering in a new era of meaningful work, local accountability and food security.

If I live another two years, I will be 100 years old. I can’t wait to see what the final years of my first century of life will bring to my Riverwest neighborhood. There hasn’t been a dull moment yet.

ED NOTE: No, I’m not retiring yet. Just engaging in a bit of time travel. I’d like to invite others in the neighorhood to share their visions from the future in a regular “Magical Realism” feature.

What does our neighborhood look like from the middle – or even the end- of the century? Think about it. Write about it. We’ll publish it…

Riverwest Currents online edition – February, 2006