By Bill Parry
For 30 years, Elmhurst resident Jennifer Chu and her neighbors on Manilla Street would look at an overgrown vacant lot that was used mainly for illegal dumping. They feared something more nefarious.
“The weeds would grow taller than me at five feet,” Chu said. “We all worried that someday one of us might be dragged into that lot where someone would do bad things and no one would see. It was scary.”
Two and a half years ago, Chu and her friends went to work on clearing the lot where Manilla Street meets the curving Kneeland Avenue. Then the small group started planting a community garden.
“My neighbors and I along with the young people from the Young Governors of New Life Church tended to the garden,” Chu said. “Not only had we cleaned it up after it was vacant all those years, we made it safer. I also came to know and become friends with many of my neighbors over the years.”
It all came to an end in February when the absentee owner decided to sell the property to the developers of five two-family homes. Chu and her group received no prior notice.
“I was at work last month and I started to get phone calls from my neighbors telling me something was going on,” Chu recalled. “And then they started texting me photos of the wall going up. There was nothing I could do because I was at work.”
There wasn’t much to be done anyway, she added, because when the retired attorney, who owned the lot, gave permission to clean up and garden the property he said he would one day sell the land.
The new owners is Ai Yun Chan and a group of partners using the name 8105 Kneeland Avenue LLC, according to city records.
“He has as-of-right and can do what he wants without even talking to the Community board,” said Chu, a member of CB 4. “Plus, when they put up the wall, they were nice enough to keep our gate and lock so we could retrieve our stuff.”
The group is looking to donate their equipment and plants to another community garden.
“But with all the development going on we haven’t found any,” Chu said. “We were going to try and start another garden of our own, but there aren’t any vacant lots left around here anymore.”
She added that there was no bitterness towards the new owner.
“In the grand scheme of things the scary overgrown lot is gone,” Chu said. “And I was able to become better friends with my neighbors.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr