Living Chicago

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Photo Credit: Gavin Van Horn

Ed. note: I recently attended a monarch festival at the South Shore Cultural Center, where I got to hear a dynamic mother-daughter duo speak to the value of this special place on the South Side of Chicago. I asked if they could share some of their thoughts about the intergenerational benefits of connecting to nearby urban nature. 

Mila: In 1999, I graduated from Morgan Park High School and packed my things to take a road trip to attend Florida A&M University. I was adamant on becoming a physician, and had a plan of using my swimming scholarship to help offset the costs of out-of-state tuition. I drove away at the end of that summer after completing my third year as a Chicago Park District lifeguard, having never stepped foot on the shores of Lake Michigan. 

My mother was a Chicago Police officer, my father was a Chicago Public School sports administrator who was responsible for supervising swimming and water polo for the school system. As a young girl, my life was filled with more city than nature and I have no memories of meeting what I now think of as living Chicago.  

Twenty years ago, when I drove away from the city, I did not know there was a collective effort to transform space adjacent to South Shore Beach to a nature sanctuary. Twenty years ago, I was clueless to the vision that allies had for me and even my own children. Twenty years ago, I didn’t plan on becoming a mother, and I didn’t plan on becoming an ecologist. Yet here I am… and here we are. Chicago had other plans for my life.  

London: My name is London Gillespie and I’m a sophomore at Kenwood Academy. This past summer, I was a youth participant in the Sacred Keepers Youth Council, where we worked with mentor and community ecologist Toni Anderson.

I’m 15 years old and I have been raised by the whisper of Lake Michigan waves, which seem to never stay quiet, and the vivid and vital plant life that surrounds the busy city that I call home. 

Seeing as my mom is an urban ecologist, I kind of have no choice but to love city nature and there is no other space that has inspired me more than the South Shore Beach and South Shore Nature Sanctuary.

Mila: All of what you read above is true. I’m London’s mom and I’m an urban ecologist, lover of all things natural, and a true blue aquaholic. 

Chicago is a marvelous living system with such a unique identity. One can travel across the 77 community areas and witness the many ways people and nature have come together to coexist. There is no shortage of greenspaces for our families to enjoy, and I’ve been blessed to have the time and energy to share the South Shore Nature Sanctuary with London. 

I still remember our first time traveling along the boardwalk. Seeing her and my two other children peek into the water melted my heart. Watching them wander around made me proud to be from the South Side. This space was not just ours as a Black community, it was ours to share, to welcome, to steward, and to create a new understanding of engagement on our terms and in our own time. 

LondonThe plant life here at South Shore Nature Sanctuary allows for a safe space to make memories. It is vibrant, it is living, and it is a place I’ve made my own memories at since being a little girl. It is far from dead; it is far from unloved or uncared for. We are here today not to restore the land, and we aren’t here protesting about pollution in space. We aren’t here talking about crime or violence in the nature sanctuary. We are here celebrating life—South Shore residents, businesses, stewards, non-profits, educators, and entrepreneurs, and us, the youth.

Mila: Mothering is a lifestyle just as advocacy is. When I consider the generational lessons I would like to pass along, they are lessons of love, forgiveness, discernment, and detachment. London is well aware of human influences on nature. The very creation of the nature sanctuary is a testimony to what kind of transformation is possible when there is collective energy and agreement on what the problem is and how it could and should be solved. 

Quite honestly, I can’t recall ever seeing South Shore beach without the nature sanctuary. Walking into the space there is a softening of the senses. The city sounds disappear. You can see the breeze through the differently shaped leaves and hear the songs of the birds chirping in every direction. The prairie grasses reach across the boardwalk and tickle you as you pass them by, and purple coneflowers lop about in the wind as butterflies and bees flutter about finding their way from flower to flower. It’s as if you are walking through a living painting with the breeze as the brush stroke. It’s a lovely feeling of contrast when you’re used to seeing colorful red and orange chip bags and cans of blue pop littering the grass. The sanctuary, in living color, introduces visitors to all the neighbors who call Chicago home.  

Peace circles offer seating and the pond invites you to gaze at your reflection. When you see yourself in the waters of the Great Lakes, you are reminded that since the human body is 80% water, all of us living here in this landscape are more alike than not. As an ecologist, I value the natural habitat for all of the animals and insects that call it home. As a mother, I value the opportunity to teach London and my other two children that money and solidarity can create many different realities. There are tradeoffs in cities, and I have enjoyed teaching them that it is their responsibility to understand how to make decisions on what kinds of investments in land are ethical, equitable, and economically viable for people and nature. 

When I think about how humans came together to create spaces like the nature sanctuary, I have mixed emotions. On one hand, I am impressed with the ability of communities to create spaces to meet human needs to connect with nature. On the other hand, I am conflicted because there are so many different kinds of greenspaces that Black and brown communities deserve. As a mother, I lean upon my experience of discernment and detachment. We have various models of how we use our space and, while we can move earth and bend landscapes to our will with the proper financial tools in place, one must reflect on a number of factors to determine what might be best for a particular area, which includes who is most likely to benefit, the identity of the social landscape, and the culture of the community overall. 

London: Because I have been taught to understand the living system that sustains Chicago’s economy, I appreciate how a city like Chicago needs to balance urban nature and spaces that can make money. Environmental education is so important. It is my hope to continue learning about nature in our city and help my community understand what wealth we have in healthy nature on the South Side of Chicago.

Mila: London understands Chicago is living and breathing. This nature sanctuary is a reflection of the investments and solidarity of a well-activated and resourced network, which enabled our beloved space to come to life. 

Just as I watch London mature and grow, I realize I know her less and less, forcing me to constantly be curious about how to get to know her. Our natural areas are quite similar. As the populations change and the community demographics shift, as the many moving parts to our city’s development continues to evolve, things will look different and, quite possibly, so too will our nature and our needs from nature.

Reflecting on this raises the following questions: How do we carry the ethics, lessons, and morals forward in these new versions of our landscapes? How do we hold on to the systems we so dearly advocated for, nourished, and invested money and time into? How do we articulate the value of the benefits before they disappear or are redirected with no clear return on our investment?

I’m thinking of these kinds of questions because the South Shore Nature Sanctuary may soon be transformed again. For many people, including my daughter and I, this will be difficult. Letting go is hard. I’m in no position to chastise those who wish to see transformation. Yet just as I invited London to witness living Chicago, what is needed is that connection to the history of both the land and the living bodies that helped transform the land over time. 

Looking back at how much my understanding of a living Chicago has changed since 1999, I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to get to see the love of our city reflected in the sanctuary’s 4.27 acres. The nature sanctuary may not be there twenty years from now, but I will forever be indebted to those that made it possible for me and my daughter to see, to feel, and to witness life, colors, breezes, reflections, and—most beloved—the rested eyes and neighborly smiles of others. The memories and experiences created between London and me, no matter what happens to the land, will live with us indefinitely. 

  • London Gillespie

    London is a spirited sophomore of Kenwood Academy. As a track runner, London loves to be outdoors around the city. Lolo believes all of nature deserves respect and has dedicated her summers at Sacred Keepers Sustainability Lab learning to be an advocate for earth.

  • Mila Marshall

    Mila is a self-proclaimed aquaholic and lover of all things living. She is a doctoral candidate in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at University of Illinois at Chicago and spends her time exploring nature in the city with her three children, London, Landan, and Keagan.

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