Words by Tess Becker
The last place you’d think to see blooming flowers in small farm plots would be the metropolitan cities across the US, but the Chicago Eco House is changing that while also promoting sustainability to help alleviate inner city poverty.
Chicago Eco House started out of the Southside of Chicago in 2014 as the brainchild of Quilen Blackwell. He took opportunities granted to him by his family and ran with them, first starting in the Peace Corps and later in ministry school which is what brought him to Chicago,
It was then, in Chicago, he realized what he wanted to do.
“I started tutoring at a high school here and getting to know these kids and their families and their stories,” Quilen tells Smiley News. "Just through that process, I really just felt like I had a choice, either I could continue to live my life the way I did, which was largely for me, and the people I cared about, or I could dedicate my life to serving a higher purpose.”
He went with the latter and the Chicago Eco House was born. Quilen wanted to find a way to help communities be more self-sustaining with better opportunities.
“One of the things we quickly recognized is that there really isn't an anchor industry in the hood,” Quilen says. “You think about a place like Silicon Valley, the anchor industry is tech, right? You think about Napa Valley, the anchor industry is wine, grapes, and the vineyard. When you think about places like Englewood on the Southside of Chicago, there isn't that industry that people can really lean on.”
Quilen wanted to help make an anchor industry for inner city neighborhoods and landed on planting and selling flowers. But he wanted to do so in a way that was good for the planet.
“Once we started growing flowers we really wanted to do it in a way that would be sustainable because many people don't realize the flower industry is one of the most environmentally degrading industries in the world,” he says.
“Our farms are all solar-powered, we use rainwater catchment systems to irrigate our flowers. We don't use any pesticides or synthetic fertilizers or anything like that.”
Once they started growing their flowers, they then needed to figure out a place to sell them and that’s where their storefront, Southside Blooms came in. Southside Blooms opened in 2020 and since then they’ve worked as a direct-to-consumer flower-selling business. The business they generate helps provide work and support for at-risk teens in the community.
A big part of the expansion of the Chicago Eco House is making use of the empty lots that populate Chicago, with many being nearly unusable due to chemical pollution in the ground. Chicago Eco House is giving those pieces of land a second life.
“We'll come to clean all the trash when we set up,” Quilen says. “We'll put compost, we'll build our flower beds, we'll set up our range or rainwater catchment tanks, build shed solar, kind of the whole nine yards.
“And then it basically helps to bring that space back to not just economic life because now we're producing a cash crop and flowers, but it's also helping to bring it back to life from an environmental standpoint.”
In general, Quilen just wants to make a difference in his community and eventually expand out Chicago Eco House to other metropolitan areas like Detroit to help the inner city.
“Our ultimate vision is to basically bring the floral industry to every major inner city in the United States,” Quilen says, "and really curtail a lot of violence and urban blight and drugs and the poverty that the inner city, unfortunately, has come to be known for.”
Find out more about Chicago Eco House and what you can do to support.