WEST GARFIELD PARK — Elaine Bell-Quinn’s mother and father came to Chicago separately during the tail end of the Great Migration, looking for more opportunities.
The two met and married, raising their family — including Bell-Quinn — in West Garfield Park. But as Bell-Quinn grew up, the neighborhood struggled with disinvestment.
Now, Bell-Quinn’s helping to revitalize the neighborhood and reclaim her family’s legacy — starting with her family’s home block.
Earlier this month, the Cook County Land Bank Authority awarded Bell-Quinn the deed to the land at 4738 W. Monroe St., which is next to her family’s longtime home at 4742 W. Monroe St. The deed was free as part of a community wealth initiative to restore struggling neighborhoods and incentivize investment in them.
Bell-Quinn and her partner, Brian Quinn, plan to establish the Kitteh Soup Kitchen & Garden on the vacant plot to grow fresh produce for the neighborhood and beautify the area. It will also serve as a cat sanctuary for stray felines.
Bell-Quinn, who lives in Logan Square with her partner, said she saw a need to return to her childhood home and create a positive legacy.
The home, which has stood since the 1920s, has been set ablaze twice: once during the 1991 Chicago Bulls championship and again during 2020’s unrest, Bell-Quinn said. But Bell-Quinn’s project is reimagining the house and the land next door, turning it into a space that can feed neighbors.
The garden will be up and running by this July.
“There are still good people that live in these communities,” Bell-Quinn said. “We need to remember where we came from in order to know where we’re going. I’m just blessed, humbled and filled with so much gratitude.”
Bell-Quinn’s parents were both from Mississippi, but they didn’t meet until her mother moved to Chicago in 1960. Bell-Quinn, 50, was born, and her parents bought the Monroe Street home West Garfield Park with help from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, she said.
Bell-Quinn’s family was close: She remembers the way her dad taught her to make frozen pizza with the cardboard, and her mother shared her love of gardening.
Bell-Quinn left Chicago in 1990 to go to the University of Tulsa. Afterward, she lived in Louisville, Kentucky, and throughout the East Coast before returning to Chicago in 2000.
Bell-Quinn then worked as a stage actress and director throughout the United States — but she was always based in Chicago.
Bell-Quinn’s family had sold the Monroe Street home, but she and her partner bought it back in 2015 with big dreams of moving in.
Over the years, West Garfield Park had suffered from systemic neglect, Bell-Quinn said. There were vacant lots, a lack of food healthy food options and abandoned properties.
The couple began work to revive the family home. They’re doing a gut rehab: replacing the flooring, piping, stairs, doors, wiring and more.
As they’ve worked on the revival, they also set their sites on the property next door, they said.
The lot at 4738 W. Monroe St. had once held a two-flat that had been vacant for years, officials and Bell-Quinn said. It was set on fire during unrest in 2020 and demolished.
Bell-Quinn and Quinn learned they might be able to secure the deed to the land through an auction in 2021, they said.
The West Garfield Park land was given to Bell-Quinn through the group’s Holiday Sale initiative — which is providing her and 10 others with land for free.
“We’ve witnessed firsthand the impact when we empower community members and local developers to reclaim and resurrect abandoned parcels that depress home values and drain community wealth in Cook County’s Black and Brown neighborhoods,” Cook County Land Bank Authority officials said in a statement.“The sale is one step in the right direction toward putting these properties into the hands of residents and community organizations.”
Bell-Quinn had dreamt about owning the two plots when she was a little girl. Now, it’s reality — allowing her to strengthen her community rather than sever ties with it.
“I just want to be an inspiration as much as I can so that we can move in the right direction,” Bell-Quinn said. “It’s people that are the largest resource that’s missing from our community. It’s important that we are proud of who we are and where we come from.”
Though the area is struggling, Bell-Quinn’s happy memories from her youth give her hope, she said.
“We want to give people more than just blight,” she said.
Bell-Quinn has long prided herself on her love of nature; now, as an adult, she’s delved into sustainability work, making her own soap and other cleaning products while gardening, she said.
Bell-Quinn credits her green thumb to her family’s roots as sharecroppers who were experts at working the land in Mississippi. Her mother, who lives in North Lawndale, still gardens today at 81.
But converting the long-neglected land at the house in West Garfield Park into a thriving garden has been a large project, costing about $5,000 in seeds, fertilizer, tools and other needs, Bell-Quinn said.
But Bell-Quinn and Quinn plan to distribute the food they grow to neighbors throughout the area.
“It’s very lovely to go grocery shopping in your backyard,” Bell-Quinn said.
Sustainability for the garden is also important to Bell-Quinn, given the systemic pollution on the West Side. She hopes to have a net-zero environmental impact and wants to install solar panels.
“We’re not treating the Earth right, so I’m doing my duty as a human citizen to have a positive impact on my environment,” Bell-Quinn said. “What we do with our lives and how we treat things is not sustainable.”
Bell-Quinn and Quinn said the community is grateful for the garden, as West Garfield Park has become a food desert in recent years. They’ll grow raspberries, strawberries, onions, peppers, asparagus, thyme, elderberries, gooseberries, turnips, beets, collards, kale, tomatoes and corn, helping to nourish their neighbors with fresh produce.
The garden has also become home to 17 stray cats. It is designated as a cat colony by Cook County, and the couple is certified to train and assist others with animal spay and neuter work.
Bell-Quinn hopes their level of investment in the garden inspires others to invest in the communities’ health, she said.
“I can see the negligence and what the lack of care does to us,” Bell-Quinn said. “It’s in my roots to care for Mother Earth. I am just doing my due diligence as a human being to take care of whatever I’m doing to not have a negative impact on this Earth.”