CHICAGO – Hidden behind a car-lined street and in-between a few boarded-up houses on an Englewood block sits an unassuming pasture of a seemingly neglected city spot of unruly weeds.
Walk up closer though, to the sidewalk, then the red gate, and you'll see deep rows of lively petals slicing through the blight like an autumn-colored rainbow. Chest-high zinnia flowers neatly scatter a once-vacant lot in a quilt of burgundy, burnt orange, marigold and ivory. Three sets of hands chop the plants down to ready the flower farm for winter. Piles of flowers hang over a wagon resting until harvest time.
Flowers were a business decision for Quilen Blackwell, who added this flower farm, known as Southside Blooms, as the floral branch to his nonprofit Chicago Eco House, to "bring viable industry into the inner city." He says there's a high demand for the crop domestically since 80% of flowers are produced overseas, but the plant's universal representation — of hope, love, joy — is what Blackwell is all about.
The vision for Chicago Eco House, which started in 2014 and aims to alleviate poverty through sustainability, began while Blackwell was tutoring Englewood high schoolers. As he started building relationships with the students and heard their stories and experiences, Blackwell felt a conviction, he said.
"I was thinking if I was one of these students, and someone like me was around — who had the means and opportunity — I would hope [that person] would use that to help me out," Blackwell said.
Originally from Madison, Wis., Blackwell lived a "Cosby Show" upbringing with his affluent family. His parents, who worked full-time in information technology and corporate operations, moved from the inner city of Milwaukee to escape the various problems that plague those communities, he said. Blackwell, in pursuit of a seminary degree, came to Chicagoland in 2011.
The decision to fully commit himself to a city, a neighborhood he wasn't from, came down to a toss-up: "I could spend the rest of my life to make things better for myself and my family, or live my life where it can create opportunity for people just looking for a chance."
He and his wife, Hannah, moved to Englewood in 2015. "Because of my upbringing, I'm here because I want to be here," he said.
Chicago Eco House has three branches: an after-school program for kindergarten through eighth grade that exposes kids to urban agriculture; a paid two-week apprenticeship program; and Southside Blooms, where young adults ages 18 to 24 are given jobs as florists and flower farmers.
The overall goal with these programs, Blackwell said, is to increase workforce development in the inner city, specifically for at-risk populations on the South and West sides.
Along with its first Englewood location, Southside Blooms is also in West Garfield Park and West Woodlawn. Each site has a flower farm, solar panels and a rainwater catchment irrigation system.
"It's more about being a full-service florist so people can come to us and get bouquets and centerpieces," he said of Southside Blooms. "Part of the goal is to get young adults more into the florist side of the industry so they can become florists, do event planning, or just extend their reach into the industry."
A part of Southside Blooms' mission is to redirect young adults who may be heading down an unhealthy path, said Blackwell, who tries to recruit in places where young adults have been through more challenging circumstances.
"A lot of these kids, they just want a chance," Blackwell said. "They're not looking for a handout, not sympathy, they just want an opportunity to prove themselves."
Since the organization is still small, Blackwell has two payroll employees: Kobe Richardson and A.J. Boyce. They work part time on the flower farm, and while the farm is out of growing season during the winter, they'll work more on the administrative side, explained Blackwell.
A 19-year-old Englewood native, Richardson said he "had a terrible childhood" and was "in a lot of trouble" growing up, to the point where he was "locked up back and forth as a juvenile." The absence of a father figure was a big part of that, he said.
"I was affiliated to the streets early," said Richardson.
To stay out of trouble, Richardson joined Crushers Club, a nonprofit gang alternative organization that has a boxing program and gym, in early 2015, and would, and still does, go every day to work out, he said. But that didn't eliminate all trouble from finding him.
In January 2017, Richardson woke up in the hospital after being shot multiple times by someone he thought was a friend, he said. He told BET that Sally Hazelgrove, Crushers Club founder, was one of the first people he saw.
Hazelgrove connected Richardson with Southside Blooms. He began working for Blackwell this spring and saw the flower farm as a new experience to do hands-on and outdoor work.
"The atmosphere and the vibe the flowers give off to you, you can come through mad and it'll calm down your nerves a little bit," he said. "You get everyday experience here. It's helping me develop into a better man."
Boyce, a 23-year-old who earned a bachelor's degree in environmental science from Connecticut College in 2017, joined Southside Blooms as one way to attack his larger environmental mission.
"I want to help develop agricultural methods for urban environments that can have a lot of community impact," said Boyce. "It's more sustainable and will also be implemented by people in the community."
Blackwell credits his Christian faith as the driving force behind Chicago Eco House and Southside Blooms. While he doesn't see the organization as a "Bible nonprofit," he said, meaning with an explicit mission to evangelize and tell people about Christianity, he said he does hope it shows God's love for communities that can often be overlooked.
"The reality is God hears the cries of every mom who's lost a son to gun violence. He hears the cries of all the people in a place like this," he said. "He sees all the suffering, all the blight. Eco House and Southside Blooms is kind of the physical manifestation of God's love for the people in the inner city."
Long term, Blackwell sees flowers being to Chicago what wine is to Napa Valley.
"You see all the vineyards and the wine industry support of that area," he said, "and we think flowers can do that for the vacant lots in Chicago … We're not just trying to do a nice little community project. There's a real, tangible vision."