Chicago’s Southside Blooms Makes A Difference In Dire Straits

Southside Blooms

The main competition for Quilen and Hannah Blackwell, the owners of Southside Blooms, a nonprofit in Chicago that hires young adults and children who are at-risk, isn’t other flower shops. It’s the everlasting charm of the streets.

Hannah Blackwell said of the youth who had previously taken part in their program, “We heard that some of the kids in our after-school program joined a gang when they grew older.” The Kansas native said of a former participant in the program, “I don’t know if Shawn is still alive.”Situated in the predominantly Black area of Englewood, South Side Chicago, is the Southside Blooms flower shop, which operates under the phrase “flowers that empower.” The Blackwells are a family of three who have lived in a food desert for the past ten years due to poverty, gang and gun violence, and a lack of job opportunities. Quilen Blackwell declared, “What you see in the media is true.”

Chicago, one of the most dangerous cities in the nation, saw 617 homicides in 2023. 327 homicides in Los Angeles and 386 in New York took place in the same year. The Blackwells claim that there have been fewer shootings in Englewood. The Chicago Police Department said in February that the city has seen double-digit drops in shootings, homicides, and gunshot victims when compared to the same period in 2023.

The Blackwells’ son, however, is still terrified and hides in their bed at night when he hears gunfire. In Englewood, the dangers remind a pious couple of their ultimate needs. Wisconsin native Quilen Blackwell said, “I felt like the Lord was calling me to the inner city.”

Englewood is where you may find the Chicago Eco House. The flower shop’s umbrella non-profit teaches young people life and job skills through sustainable urban agriculture through farming, floral production, and flower sales. Southside Blooms is a group of creative youth who design floral arrangements and centerpieces for local events like weddings. People can labor on the off-grid farms or at the shop for as long as they’d like.

“It goes beyond simply teaching you some fundamental skills for ten weeks and saying, ‘Hey, good luck finding a job,'” said Quilen Blackwell. “In our situation, we are the careers and the jobs.”

The Blackwells want to convert abandoned buildings into successful flower farms that will eventually provide long-term jobs for local youth. They will be able to grow flower sales as an anchor industry as a result. They assert that by doing this, they will remain off the streets. “We want them to be proud of Englewood and ask themselves, ‘What can I do to make it better?’ rather than, ‘As soon as I can, I’m getting out of here.'” said Hannah Blackwell.

The Blackwells debuted Southside Blooms in 2020 and Chicago Eco House a decade prior. Since then, they have converted five abandoned Chicago properties into flower farms powered by solar energy. There are two lots that make up the Chicago Eco House. The other three are owned by the county and the city, but the Blackwells are allowed to use them. The programs transform abandoned, litter-filled neighborhood areas into pesticide-free gardens that attract wildlife such as birds, bees, and grasshoppers.

Everyone Is Content

There are about 35 people in their Southside Blooms professional development program, whose members are typically between the ages of 16 and 25. As the organization grows, the pair says they intend to open a second Southside Blooms flower shop on Chicago’s West Side. 16-year-old junior Armani Hopkins, who advanced to the position of team lead two years after joining Southside Blooms, plans to stay on the team even after enrolling at the University of Chicago to seek a degree in microbiology.

Armani said, “Working at Southside Blooms has had a very positive impact on my life.” “It has taught me that life has more to offer, that Black neighborhoods have beauty, and that everyone deserves respect and love from one another.”

Dionta White, 27, has been a part of the Chicago Eco House farm team for the last two years. He says that since starting the course, he has become more adept at managing his emotions and has learned more about how businesses function. He also understands the value of commitment.

“Working on the farm really made me realize that if you put in the work, hard work will pay off,” White said. “You have to visualize yourself being successful in whatever you do and paying attention all the time. Every move you make has a purpose. Englewood was a prosperous neighborhood before the Great Depression; by 1930, it was home to Chicago’s second-largest business hub.

The city was a hub for the Great Migration, which saw 6 million Black people leave the South and travel across the country between 1910 and 1970. These included Quillen Blackwell’s maternal grandparents, who had relocated from Arkansas to Milwaukee at that time to work as sharecroppers. Those White families that fought to live in Englewood during the 1930s redlining of Chicago neighborhoods still call it home, at least a few decades later.

In addition to redlining, racially restrictive covenants held in place in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and other places helped to keep White people concentrated in particular districts. After a 1948 US Supreme Court ruling rejecting the practice, more Black people moved into Englewood, resulting in a fall in the White population of the area.

Redlining, White flight, and disinvestment during the Great Depression damaged small businesses in Englewood and drove down real estate values. During the crack cocaine pandemic of the 1980s, Chicago suffered significantly. According to Quilen Blackwell, the outsourcing of jobs that took place over the next ten years further undermined Englewood’s economic base.

According to White, there was no way to hang out at Englewood’s parks in the 2000s. According to his memory, “they (were) always getting shot up.” The Illinois Policy Institute reports that 40% of residents in the once-rich neighborhood are impoverished and deal with drug abuse, violence, poverty, and prostitution.

Southside Blooms Is Located In A Safe Zone

The Blackwells came together with the intention of improving the inner city. In 2015, they came onto a cheap Englewood house, had it repaired in six months, and have been living in it ever since.

“Our first youth program was in our backyard; everything that you see today with both (Chicago) Eco House and Southside Blooms started inside our house,” said Quilen Blackwell. The Chicago Eco House farms the flowers, and Southside Blooms acts as a fulfillment center, according to the pair.

“We basically distribute our services throughout the Chicagoland region and into the Northwest Indiana suburbs as part of our distribution approach. We are redistributing resources from communities with enough resources back into the community by doing this, according to Hannah Blackwell. Rather than functioning like a normal retail flower shop that relies on walk-in and walk-by consumers, we keep the door secured. She said that everyone inside was in a safe place.

The Blackwells began their indoor bulb-forcing enterprise in 2023, allowing them to cultivate flowers year-round and providing continuous work for the farm team despite Chicago’s unproductive winters. Since last year, much of the winter flower cultivation—mainly tulips—has taken place in the basement of Chicago Eco House. There, the Blackwells hope to grow about 30,000 bulbs annually.

“We weren’t able to provide that stable, year-round employment opportunity, and I feel like that’s one reason we did lose some of those young men (who left the program),” said Hannah Blackwell. The two stated that while the typical participant stayed at Chicago Eco House for three months in 2018, the average stay has increased to six months, with some participants staying for up to three years.

In 2019, the FBI’s Chicago field office presented Quilen Blackwell with the Director’s Community Leadership Award in appreciation of her work utilizing the Chicago Eco House to combat poverty and violence. The organization stated that over thirty high school students now get stipends to help fund their studies in urban agriculture as a consequence of the non-profit co-founder’s efforts.