Challenging us to make a change


As I flipped through real estate ads in the Herald a few weeks ago, my heart did a jig at one bold-faced heading: “Energy-conscious Co-op Association.” “Wow, could we finally be catching on?” I wondered to myself.

I’m no longer in the market for property, but three years ago when I was, finding a condo association with “green” awareness — a huge selling point to my husband and me — proved challenging. In fact, we considered bypassing the condo life for a house to achieve “green” autonomy. As we considered it though, we realized that “green” and “autonomous” are not words that should be paired – fragmented efforts move little.

When we realized that finding a “green” condo association was virtually impossible, we settled on a condo in a lovely 12-flat with wonderful neighbors from all walks of life. We love where we live!

But we’ve come to notice that — like many systems nowadays — the standard-fare maintenance mechanisms employed by the condo association are the rickety relics of yesteryear — accepted habits that fit the old bill. Garbage service, maintenance, landscaping, water … these have become afterthoughts to residents, years-long established patterns that perform their functions without much notice. Garbage is collected every Monday and Thursday; out of sight, out of mind. The maintenance crew comes every Wednesday and leaves its signature chemical perfume lingering in the hallways for hour after nauseating hour — but, heck, that’s just Wednesday! Accept and move on.

The spring after we moved in, the condo association hired a landscaper to come lay sod on the lifeless, compacted dirt between the street and our building because that’s just what condo associations do. We watered the grass compulsively to bring life to our investment — and a drain to our budget. Not only did we pay for the initial cost of sod, labor, fertilizer and herbicides, but our condo water bill doubled that summer. And the grass died.

We are left today wondering what to do about the dusty dead earth around our building. What solution will beautify without busting our budget? What will survive the weather conditions of Chicago with minimal inputs of water, nitrogen fertilizer and toxic anything-icides? What will be the most responsible decision for landscaping with longevity, a truly sustainable choice?

I look around and realize that our questions about landscaping are the tip of the iceberg. But before I get caught up in nightmares of “The System” — that big bad immovable beast — gobbling us alive, I take a deep breath and check myself. I examine my own place within it and recognize that I am a co-creator, however actively or passively, of many of the microsystems that comprise the whole: my home and workplace, my favorite restaurants and markets, my school and church.

They are happening around me, and I participate in them daily. By default, I put my dollars into old ways of doing things, and simultaneously, I can’t help but to imagine a better way.

In the spirit of adventure, I’ve been experimenting with a way to reduce my own household waste, while trying to build the health of the struggling dirt around my home. I’ve started indoor “Bokashi” composting. With 29 percent of Chicago’s household waste being organic matter, I figure I can help myself to some of it to rebuild the soil right here on my own corner. Why should I pay money to export nutrient-rich food waste (so it can rot in a plastic bag for 500-plus years), while paying somebody else to pump chemical fertilizer into my dead dirt to compensate for lost nutrients (which runs off into the gutters and pollutes my drinking water)? Asking this question made me realize the logical errors and wastefulness of business as usual.

This column is a personal challenge to myself and my Hyde Park neighbors to roll up our sleeves all at once and participate—to question what we take for granted, to propose meaningful changes and to share practical tips and progress from our journeys.

One foot after the other, your steps and mine, can move this neighborhood to a whole new level of “green” … and I’m talking two shades. Can you imagine breathing through uncongested lungs, drinking and bathing in unpolluted water, living each day without the extra worries of chemical toxicity and personal guilt? All the while, we could be sparing our budgets — or at least breaking even — and increasing our property values and neighborhood charm. What in the world do we have to lose?