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Gritting It Out Amid The Dirt In Chicago

Christy Webb and Harry Jenkins look back on tough days — and toward a brighter future.
Ketzel Levine/NPR
Christy Webb and Harry Jenkins look back on tough days — and toward a brighter future.
Harry Jenkins coaches boxing for young men at the Carrol Street Center on Chicago's West Side.
/ Ketzel Levine/NPR
Ketzel Levine/NPR
Harry Jenkins coaches boxing for young men at the Carrol Street Center on Chicago's West Side.

Driving around downtown Chicago with landscaper Christy Webber is like going on a tour of her own private park. Near City Hall, evidence of her work abounds.

"All these trees you see here on Michigan Avenue?" she says. "Yep. We planted them."

On daily display to millions, the beautification of a city that's now considered a template for the buzzword "green" would seem the ultimate accomplishment.

"Oh yeah, it was a hell of a job," Webber says. "It was really ... it was painful," she says, pausing, at an uncharacteristic loss for words.

The tree installation in downtown Chicago was the first phase in a multiyear project that nearly ruined Christy Webber Landscaping, a period of time Webber now calls "The Millennium Park Years." And the way she says it is reminiscent of one of Hollywood's most memorable lines: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

The Makings Of A Cautionary Tale

Arriving at Millennium Park, Webber is greeted by one of her maintenance crew bosses. Webber absconds with one of her company's bright red landscaping carts to cruise the scene of the crime: the installation of the world's largest rooftop garden.

The park itself, crowned by architect Frank Gehry's outdoor concert pavilion, is a stirring piece of landscape architecture that has become a magnet of urban energy and an ennobling people's park. The back story is less inspiring.

"It took me almost three years to even be able to come down here," Webber says, "because I lost so much money trying to put this park together. Three years before I could even say, 'We did this!' "

In 2001, taking on such an enormous installation was an enormous stretch for Webber. Call it part moxie, part denial. In the end, she lost half a million dollars in an experience with all the makings of a cautionary tale.

"I aged 10 years on this project. I really feel like I did," Webber says. But when asked whether she considered giving up the business, she's adamant.

"Oh no! Never! Are you kidding?" she says. "I just got right back at it and thought, 'Why aren't we cutting the grass over here?' So now," she says with a wry laugh, "we maintain it!"

'It Ain't The End Of The World'

Grounds maintenance and residential work may be the ticket that keeps Christy Webber Landscaping afloat during the economic recession. That bodes well for her 250 employees — including a man no one else would hire.

Harry Jenkins is tall and thin, with a hoop in his ear and aged eyes that could break your heart. He is 50 years old.

"I made one mistake in my life," he says. "One mistake. I can tell you, but I don't like talking about this."

Convicted of attempted murder when he was a teenager — his weapon was his fists — Jenkins spent 28 years in jail. Afterward, he had a predictably hard time finding a job. Those lean years may give him an edge during the slowdown. That's because Jenkins knows what it takes to get by.

"Pinching off the little money that I do have, that's how I've been making it," he says. "Pinching off of it, giving up a lot of things. A lot of things I want to get I can't. I can't afford it.

"It ain't the end of the world," Jenkins adds. "Although you don't like the situation that you're in, think about the people sleeping on the streets, begging for money. And you say to yourself, 'I'm grateful I'm not in that situation. I don't know what I'd do!' "

Jenkins says he turns to God for moxie and for other things beyond his control. These days, he prays fervently that his employer stays flush with work.

His boss, Webber, is also working her connections, determined to hold on to her business — and every one of her staff.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ketzel Levine
NPR Senior Correspondent Ketzel Levine reports for Morning Edition.