“Our goal is that by our sunset years, the ghetto as we know it is a thing of the past,” says Hannah Blackwell, about the dream she shares with her husband, Quilen. To achieve that goal, Quilen founded Chicago Eco House in 2014—the same year he met his now-wife and business partner. Together, they share three young children and a charitable organization in the at-risk neighborhood of Englewood, where they also live. Christians with a passion for Englewood, the Blackwells have put their money where their heart was and transformed their mission of alleviating poverty into a lifestyle for the whole family: “We trust God and we believe that we’re giving our kids an important view of what it really means to live our faith. I feel like our faith is the bedrock of doing this because we do believe that God loves people and that this is a gift—especially for Black people.”
After experimenting with multiple ideas, the Blackwells realized that the main issue in the neighborhood they cared so much about was lack of jobs. At first they tried to connect at-risk youth with available jobs all over the city, but they soon learned that real change would come if those jobs were right there in Englewood. “So we looked around and we thought, what do we have? We have land [all the vacant lots] and we have a workforce,” says Hannah. Initially they tried to grow food, but discovered it wouldn’t be a viable business. Then they thought of flowers: “We started researching and found that cut flowers is a $35-billion industry—plus you can grow a lot on a small piece of land, and it’s something that you can teach people to do. So we just dove in.” Their intent is not only to create jobs but a bedrock industry in disadvantaged communities, pulling resources from wealthier parts of town. They are also serious about sustainability, and run their flower farms one-hundred-percent off-the-grid by using solar power, rainwater irrigation and regenerative agriculture practices to contain pests and enrich the soil. Their compost comes from MWRD (Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago), which has seven wastewater treatment facilities in the city. They mix it with plant clippings and waste from their chickens, which are also part of their ecosystem, along with bee colonies. Another reason their flowers are sustainable is that they are produced locally and don’t need to travel long distances and require refrigeration and fumigation. Hannah says even the bees seem to favor their locally grown bouquets over imported ones.
Chicago Eco House comprises four flower farms in Chicago (located in Englewood, Woodlawn, West Garfield Park, and Washington Park), and a commercial arm called Southside Blooms—a platform from which the organization sells their flowers and other products to sustain their programs. They are expanding their model to other cities, including Detroit and Gary, and partnering with multiple local groups such as the Montessori School of Englewood and the Cook County Juvenile Probation Services. To help the Montessori school, they created “Books and Blooms,” an initiative that allocates twenty percent of flower sales to the purchase of books with minorities as central characters (donations can be made by entering “BOOKS” at checkout). In partnership with the Cook County Juvenile Probation Services, they offer opportunities for community-service hours, and are in the works to start a flower farm in prison. “We had a young man who did excellently in his community-service hours here, so we were able to offer him a job. The day after his court date, he was back working with us,” says Hannah. She remembers that as that young man had his first day of work, another of the same age was shot nearby. “It really pushes us to keep doing more. It’s not enough as long as any kids out there are dying.”
The youth employed by the programs at Chicago Eco House are usually of high school age, ranging from mid- to late teens. In their part-time positions they do everything: planting, harvesting, arranging flowers. “They’re our primary bouquet makers and now they even do some events,” she says. “It’s really fun to see them putting the bouquets together and being really careful about how they look. With this last arrangement one of the guys kept saying ‘I love this one! It’s so pretty! Can I take a picture?’ Which is great, because there’s a lot of negative stereotypes about young men in our community, and a lot of people don’t picture them with a beautiful bouquet of flowers, or being excited about these beautiful flowers they’re arranging,” she says. Even though the Blackwells are there, providing the teens a place of refuge from all they go through, the couple makes sure to set high standards for their team. “If you start lowering the bar because you think you’re being compassionate, it’s just paternalistic,” Hannah says. “Since I am white I know paternalism is built into me. So I really appreciate what Quilen [who is Black] brings—he is just the perfect leader for this,” says Hannah. Besides acquiring technical skills, the teens learn soft skills such as being on time and saving money for transportation.
On a cold Tuesday night in Englewood, Eric S., was at Southside Blooms working on a Christmas wreath while peacefully listening to his earbuds. He says that at this job he “found out what nature is” and learned how to multitask and collaborate with others. “I feel happy just knowing I’m doing something good for a good cause,” he says. The atmosphere at the shop is fun and serene—light chatting mixed with lounge music in the background, the air fragrant with the subtle smell of the wreaths. The spacious storefront, decorated by Hannah, who has a keen eye for design, feels airy, contemporary and romantic. It’s there that the bouquets are arranged and other flower-adjacent products are made and stored—candles containing one-hundred-percent beeswax, honey produced in their farms, and their “bury and blossom” cards, which are made with recycled paper and decorated with seeded shapes that can be popped out and planted.
Having pivoted from mostly selling their output to florists, Southside Blooms started providing Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions after the pandemic hit. Their success of this endeavor was such that it attracted national press coverage—from the New York Times, to Forbes and the Today Show. Since their CSA box quickly sells out, they keep up with demand by sourcing flowers wholesale and arranging them in-house as part of their “Help Us Grow” program. Their goal is to raise enough funds to scale and winterize their production so that in the future all the flowers they sell can come from their farms. Currently they only grow their CSA blooms—seasonal bouquets which include peonies, hyacinths, tulips, alliums, sunflowers, zinnias and marigolds, available spring to fall. The “Help Us Grow” bouquets—sourced wholesale—can be purchased individually or via monthly subscription throughout the year. But first things first: This Valentine’s Day their bouquets will feature blooms such as garden roses, peonies, hyacinths and some blush stalks. “I didn’t want anything overly pink or red—just something that reminded me of romance,” says Hannah, a hairstylist-turned-florist. As part of their sustainability—and charm!—all their bouquets are wrapped with discarded South Side Weekly newspapers, and kept moist with wet paper towels placed in compostable plastic bags. As Hannah puts it: “There are many little things that we’re trying to do to stay true to our mission—using sustainability to alleviate poverty.”
Journalist Isa Giallorenzo was born in São Paulo, Brazil and has elected Chicago as her beloved home since 2009. She runs the street-style blog Chicago Looks and wants to see this town become one of the fashion capitals of the world.