He moved to Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood because he wanted to. Now, Quilen Blackwell is turning vacant lots into flower farms.
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 an ombre 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 percent 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 issues that plague those communities, he said. Blackwell, […]