Chicago’s Christy Webber Landscapes is a local giant that prospered in the 1980s when Mayor Richard Daley invested heavily in transforming the city’s public parks. The firm worked on Millennium Park, the United Center, and O’Hare Airport. Christy Webber told Susan Du how she has turned her focus to neighborhood projects in Chicago’s underserved communities in recent years, building urban farms and gardens out of her own pocket, on her own time.
Susan Du: How do you see the landscape industry developing in Chicago now, and where do you fit in?
Christy Webber: For the last couple of years, I’ve really managed to develop a team of players who are really carrying the weight. We’re doing acquisitions, we’re growing, we’re picking up a lot more. There’s a big change in the landscaping industry in Chicago of moving away from just landscape architecture firms to firms that are all-inclusive of design, build, and maintenance. It’s really sad, to be honest.
Why is this transition sad?
The landscape industry’s just gone. I think it’s gone across the country. I think our industry really blew it. When “green” came around, we didn’t have a message. What part of this movement were we a part of? It’s sort of like we were just the greenies that came in and did the work. We were just the laborer. Nobody even knows when you go to beautiful landscapes—like Millennium Park or South Beach or millions of different, beautiful landscapes—that you know are so unbelievable, a landscape architect designed that. But people don’t know that. It’s just part of the construction.
I just feel like our industry didn’t get together in time. When you think of “green” and “sustainability,” people don’t even think of landscaping. They think, “Oh, it must be a green building.” Our industry was so busy fighting the legislators about fertilizations and herbicides and pesticides and fighting each other about whether a landscape architect could have a practice act. Across the country, we have some really famous hotshots out there in the landscape architecture industry, but us local guys, we’re just a piece of the puzzle.
Is it too late for the industry to rebrand?
I think they’re too broke. It has to be all of us. Everyone’s struggling across the country. Many of them closed. You know it’s the age of acquisitions and mergers, so you’re seeing all these architectural firms teaming, and though they used to have a great landscape architecture section to them, now it’s, “Hey, we don’t need you. We got a few of those in New York.”
If other firms are weeding themselves out, doesn’t that create less competition for you? Has the decline of the industry as a whole actually benefitted your business?
In our industry, the bad is gone. The guys that cheated the hell out of our customers, the bad designers… this cleaned the house. I even picked up a few of them myself, just acquisitions of inventory, acquisitions of equipment, some their business, some just their stuff. Some I saved from failing.
It’s a billion-dollar industry. I’m gonna change it. That’s my next thing in life, I’ll tell you right now. There’s a few of us, we’re gonna change this. I’m gonna jump on this urban farming because I think the only way we’re going to revive our whole industry, landscape architecture and contracting, is we’ve got to put what we do in touch with the people.
You hire within underserved communities, including ex-offenders. Why is that important to you?
I employ a lot of African Americans. For my industry, it’s predominantly Hispanic, and I have a lot of black people that work for me. Then I just started working with Comer Youth Center. Just watching this farm get built and helping them build it, and just the change in the kids that were over there, that really inspired me. Part of their job was to pick the tomatoes and put them in boxes and they sell some stuff to restaurants. Just teaching them, “You know you can eat that tomato.”
I said, “Eat it,” and they’re like, “Uh, no… You can’t eat it.”
“You can eat it. Try it.”
With so much poverty, the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor, there’s just no fresh food for these folks. And if we don’t figure out over here how to make some of these urban ghettos—for lack of a better word—healthier and better places and uplift our society, we’re done. We’ll have to put up more gates and buy more guns to protect our stuff.
You see kids going to school who are hungry. In America. In Chicago, 10 blocks from my building, my $3.5 million, fancy ass building. If I could just make a little kid happy by building him a safe little place to walk through that’s pretty and not filled with 45 Coke bottles… Can you imagine living in that, trying to lift yourself out of that junk?
I see parts of Chicago that white people and affluent people do not realize look just like Detroit. And we look down at Detroit because it went bankrupt, well, we’re on our way.
Do you see urban farms as a viable solution to reducing food desserts and by extension alleviating some of the violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods?
Oh yeah. I’m all about it. I make a ton of them. I call it guerilla gardening. I can’t even tell you how many vacant lots that the city owns that we’ve just taken over. We don’t ask anyone permission, no. I just take my equipment, I take anything I need to make it happen in a day because I need to make it happen before anyone catches me.
If I can do it, and I can make it beautiful, what alderman is gonna tear it down? I mean you’ve gotta be an idiot. I don’t give a damn. This was a desolate corner where dogs were shitting and needles were being thrown. And what do you want me to do? Do you want me to take the trees out now?
We’re also working with a lot of great organizations, the Kitchen Community we’re doing work with, Fulton Street Gardens, Heartland Alliance is building some big, big farms over here on the West Side. I did a ton of work with Comer Youth Center. It’s all with a bunch of African Americans, just trying so hard to clean up some of this. If we can get food, that’s the byproduct, but the whole benefit is just to try and get better. I don’t know how many people have taken a drive around some of these neighborhoods to just see how bad it is.
The black community is just devastated right now. We can’t just stand by and say that’s their problem. So if it’s cleaning up lots right now, so be it. It’s something I can do with my machines. I do it. It doesn’t cost my company anything.
The turning point in your career was contracting with the United Center. How did you manage to get that deal and what did it do for your business?
So there was this guy at the store, and he knew a gal, and the girl’s dad owned the Blackhawks.
It was Mr. Wirtz, and I said, “I live in East Village. The United Center is here one mile from my house. I know I can cut the grass for the United Center. I know I can do it.” So that was my big hit. I got that account. I never had season tickets because I could never afford them, but I do now. The Wirtzes were very great to me, and we still take care of their yards. Honestly if that guy called me at 12 at night, I’d be over there picking shit up. Mr. Wirtz was fabulous, fabulous.
Then I got certified as a minority firm, and so many companies used me for their percentages, and by using me I wasn’t just a percentage. I was putting the fox in the henhouse. I paid attention.
How is work going on Bloomingdale Trail? What kind of impact do you think it’ll have on Chicago’s Northwest side?
I’ve been a part of that since the get-go. I made a very substantial commitment financially to the Bloomingdale Trail, I participated in all the meetings. I’ve lived by that trail for 20 years. Of course we’d go and sneak up there all the time. Everybody does.
I wasn’t that happy with it being a bike thing, but you know if that’s how we’re gonna get $39 million from the federal government, we’ll do a bike trail. I just don’t like that because it just won’t be good for my kids, but my kids will be up on that trail. That’s why I got into it, because I have a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old.
It’s so right for me. This Bloomingdale Trail, it’s going to transform everything. I don’t think we realize this as residents just how much of an impact it’s going to have on us, just in terms of the crunch of people that are going to come to it. We better get our shit together in our neighborhoods, figure out where we’re going to park people. Businesses are going to pop up everywhere. It’s going to be a boon for the neighborhood. People are craving cool green space.