This self-taught gardener beautifies the backyard and helps residents reclaim their streets one corner at a time

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BACK OF THE YARDS – Edgar Florentino loved to visit the city center as a child, admiring the colors and textures of the landscape flora. Then he would come back to Back of the Yards and was disappointed by the lack of vibrancy in the streets, he said.

Two years ago, Florentino began laying out “hot spots” – streets where there is a lot of gun violence – and is on a mission to spruce up and reclaim walkways for neighbours.

Most of Florentino’s works can be found along 48th and 49th streets, between Hoyne and Seeley avenues. His greenery is concentrated in the corners, but he also got permission to garden in the walks between someone’s house and the street, Florentino said.

“It’s just something beautiful to see something grow,” said Florentino, who now lives in Gage Park. “I had neighbors around the block who came out and started gardening [with me].”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A crabapple tree along the blocks where resident Edgar Florentino planted trees and flowers for his neighbors in Back of the Yards on May 10, 2022.

Florentino has planted American plum trees, Japanese cherry trees, crabapple trees, cacti, small pines and more. Beyond aesthetics, Florentino said he wanted these corners to be gathering areas.

At one of the corners of Florentino, at 48th Street and Seeley Avenue, he placed park benches, tree stumps, a blackboard and a small free library. He said he calls these “Mom Plazas,” a nod to watchful mothers who keep an eye on what’s going on in their neighborhood. His goal is to have one at every other corner.

“It’s a way of reclaiming public spaces by turning them into green spaces,” said Florentino. “I think it could work better than any blue light camera that’s been set up in our corners. My intention is to get people out and make them feel comfortable, make them think they could own these corners, these promenades.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A “Mom Plaza” at the corner of 48th Street and Seeley Avenue where resident Edgar Florentino planted trees and flowers for his neighbors at Back of the Yards on May 10, 2022.

Growing up in Back of the Yards, Florentino knows intimately the violence affecting the neighborhood, he said. He said it was hard to avoid gang clashes just by waiting at the bus stop heading to school.

Beautifying residential streets and intersections is how Florentino helps people feel safer and encourages potential abusers to “think twice.” But it’s also an example of how Florentino changed the course of his life.

“I was once a victim turned aggressor, and now I’ve remade myself, I’ve looked at what I’ve done and what I’m doing, how I feel, how I think as a changed man compared to who I was”, says Florentin.

Florentino says he is a self-taught horticulturist. He learned all about gardening and caring for his plants from reading, watching YouTube videos — and a bit from watching his mother grow tomatoes, cucumbers and watermelons when he was a kid.

Florentino also created a bilingual Facebook gardening group called Jardineros Y Jardineras De Chicago to provide a space for local Spanish-speaking gardeners to get inspired and seek advice from one another.

Florentino said he balances his passion for gardening with full-time work as a line cook. He hopes to go to college to study horticulture or become a chef, he said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Edgar Florentino shows off the first tree he planted for his neighbors at Back of the Yards on May 10, 2022.

Nowadays, Florentino’s gardening is a one-man affair. Everything he plants or uses to adorn green spaces comes from his purchase or donation, he said. He started a GoFundMe last year to help offset the cost of his job, and he hopes to one day have people volunteering their time with him.

Florentino said his gardening is centered on Back of the Yards, but he hopes to expand his work to the south and southwest sides.

“I want to do so much more, but there’s so much I can do [alone]”, Florentino said. “If there are people willing to help me, I will be happy to take that help and continue doing what I do.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A tree planted by resident Edgar Florentino blooms along the blocks where he planted trees and flowers for his neighbors at Back of the Yards on May 10, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Cacti thrive on the corner of 48th Street and Seeley Avenue along the blocks where resident Edgar Florentino planted trees and flowers for his neighbors at Back of the Yards on May 10, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A Japanese cherry blossom blooms along the blocks where resident Edgar Florentino planted trees and flowers for his neighbors at Back of the Yards on May 10, 2022.

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