On a lot on South Calumet Avenue near East 42nd Street, area residents and visitors to the Bronzeville neighborhood farm are greeted with large sunflowers at the entrance.

Indoors, seasonal vegetables like eggplant and kale grow along with milkweed and other native plants, attracting monarch butterflies. There is a hoop house – similar to a greenhouse – and at the back of the farm there are beehives.

Last week, the Quiet Neighborhood gathering place became the site of an impromptu memorial to its founder, Johnnie Owens, a longtime community organizer who was fatally shot on Tuesday after a gunman entered his home. his family said.

His death was ruled a homicide by gunshot to the head, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office said. Police in Hazel Crest, the small village southwest of Chicago where Owens lived with his wife and children, could not be reached for comment.

Friends and family remembered Owens, 65, as a loving father and husband who loved to cook and cared about building a community for the people of Bronzeville.

“Johnnie was a community organizer in his own skin,” said longtime friend Amandilo Cuzan. “And all he did was bring people together and train them to use skills and techniques to improve their lives.”

“A philosopher of the blues”

Owens started his first garden when he was 10, on the side of his childhood home on 90th Street near Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, his wife, Rosalyn Owens, said. He became interested in food justice and began organizing the community in the 1980s, working with Barack Obama, she said.

In his 1995 book, “Dreams From My Father,” the future US president described meeting Owens, known only as “Johnnie,” for the first time before taking him under his wing. The conversation switched from topics of how jazz straddles Eastern religion to Federal Reserve Bank politics.

“At such moments his eyes widened; his voice would accelerate; his round, bearded face would glow with childlike wonder, ”Obama wrote. “That was part of the reason I hired Johnnie, I guess, his curiosity, his appreciation for the absurd. He was a blues philosopher.

In 2016, Owens founded the Bronzeville Neighborhood Farm, creating a space for community members to congregate, buy fresh produce, and learn about nutrition. The farm was Owens’ way of uniting the community and preserving Bronzeville’s heritage, said Cuzan, who helped Owens run the community gardens.

Cuzan said Owens wanted to change the narrative of Chicago’s black communities by giving people the tools to make their community safer, more productive and more beautiful. There is a twisted narrative that black communities are just a place of violence, he said.

“And sadly, many of our young people bombarded with this narrative are starting to play it as a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Cuzan said.

Owens had a master’s degree in urban geography from Chicago State University, and in recent years has occasionally taught urban planning courses in Chicago State. As director of community development for the Centers for New Horizons in Bronzeville, he led a campaign in which he called on South Side convenience stores and liquor stores to offer healthier food options.

He also started a community garden behind the New Horizons building. But when grant funding for his position ended, Owens looked for more land to grow vegetables, working with NeighborSpace and Ald. Pat Dowell to secure the land on Calumet Avenue, Cuzan said.

“He was determined,” Cuzan said. “I looked at this man with all, you know, the force of nature he could muster, and he made this farm.”

Across from the farm, new homes are being built as Bronzeville continues to grow and new neighbors move in.

“If you look across the street, that was about to be the fate of this plot,” said David Welch, who helped Owens start the farm.

Welch said Owens was observant and diligent, often the first to find new growth in their crops.

“This Tuesday, I was here and harvested a ton of okra, and I was getting ready to call it, and then I realized I couldn’t,” he said. “It really, really, really made me sad.”

Welch said he would miss the way Owens brought people together, his determination to keep the farm going and his enthusiasm for building a healthy community.

“We will continue,” he said. “It’s just a matter of picking up the pieces of everything he’s done. But we have to find the pieces.

Rosalyn Owens said she plans to honor her husband by seeing through his plans for space.

“I’m going to work the best I can with them to make sure this garden is not going to sow,” she said.

A loving father

Rosalyn met Johnnie while volunteering at her high school in 2001. Although they both attended Chicago Vocational Career Academy High School, they didn’t know each other at the time.

They were in their 40s when they started dating, and a few months later Rosalyn told Johnnie that she considered adoption after being a foster parent. Johnnie moved in to help her care for the newborn twins she adopted, and her love and care for the boys made their relationship stronger, she said.

“He was so good to them,” Rosalyn said. “He never had children of his own, but the way he took care of them touched me so much. “

After Rosalyn took the twins to meet their older siblings in foster care, she became attached to the older children and asked Johnnie if they could adopt them too, she said. He became a loving father to them and to his two children from his first marriage, she said.

Owens served in the military for about four years during the Vietnam War, Rosalyn said. He was not deployed to Vietnam, but spent two years in Germany and two years in the United States between 1973 and 1977, she said.

He suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Cuzan said, which was frustrating for Owens. He was carrying an oxygen tank and an inhaler and was no longer able to work on the farm as often as before.

Cuzan thought that’s what Rosalyn would tell him when she called Tuesday morning – that Owens’ health had deteriorated. He said he was reassured that Owens died trying to protect his family.

“Johnnie was a soldier and he came out like a soldier,” Cuzan said.

A friend and his family ask for donations in his honor to be made to the Bronzeville neighborhood farm.

Tribune reporter Alice Yin contributed.


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