Since the early days of American history, so-called utopian communities have been a defining feature of our cultural landscape. Photographer Joel Sternfeld has captured 60 of them in his new book, "Sweet Earth". A common theme in these societies is harmony with nature, and many also boast noteworthy eco-friendly features. In this series of stories, we'll visit North Carolina, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Illinois, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Tennessee, and learn about their founders’ visions.

City Farm, Clybourn and Cleveland Avenues, Chicago, Illinois, May 2005

City Farm is a series of temporary sustainable organic farms built on vacant land leased from the city of Chicago. This site is adjacent to Cabrini Green, a housing project whose name has become synonymous with all that is wrong with public housing.

Founded and managed by Ken Dunn, a native Kansan with a family background in farming and a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago, City Farm begins by leasing vacant lots, cleaning them and then putting down a protective clay barrier to prevent leaching of any toxic materials contained in the site. Fresh soil is then brought in and fertilized with discarded trimmings from restaurants and grass clippings that would normally go to landfill. Unemployed and homeless people are invited to apply for apprenticeships and jobs on these sites, as the land is planted with heirloom tomatoes, beets, carrots, potatoes, gourmet lettuces, herbs and melons. When the crop comes in, produce is sold to some of the city’s most stylish restaurants: Frontera Grill, Scoozi, Mod and the Ritz-Carlton. Chefs rave about the quality of the handpicked heirloom tomatoes, often harvested just hours before their use.

Proceeds from these sales are used, in part, to allow for the additional sale of City Farm produce to neighborhood residents at much lower prices. In deciding which crops to plant, neighborhood tastes are taken into account.

When the land is sold, City Farm rolls up the compost, soil and fencing, and relocates. The city of Chicago currently has about eighty thousand vacant lots.

This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in February 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Also in this series

Slices of heaven: Illinois
Joel Sternfeld's photographs of American utopias.