Somebody Give This Guy a Genius Grant
Ken Dunn embodies an American ideal of intelligence, an extraordinary melding of farmer and philosopher. He just might be the smartest man in the city. And he grows magnificent tomatoes.
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Still, Dunn felt that he had much to learn about life. He returned to the United States to "study with the best," seeking out the widely acclaimed University of Chicago professor Richard McKeon. "He was regarded as one of the few living philosophers," Dunn recalls. "He was taking philosophy back to the notion that it was a systematic way of looking at problems and coming up with solutions. He maintained that there are just a few great ideas and a variety of methods which you can use to tinker with those ideas to adapt them to different circumstances. My philosophy training was in how to make decisions to impact society in the right direction."
Dunn finished his M.A. in 1972 and completed the coursework for his Ph.D. in 1976, but he found himself distracted by the outside world-even more so, perhaps, than the average procrastinating doctoral candidate. "There was just a shock of seeing Chicago, with all of its inequalities and communities with so much vacant space," he recalls. "I thought, I cannot live here unless there is a way to improve on this. With so many things needing to be done and so many people needing something to do, why weren't they connecting?"
And from that question grew the Resource Center: Dunn had noticed a group of men habitually sitting at the edge of a vacant lot next to a liquor store. Every day they would scrounge up enough money to buy a bottle, then drink it, and finally toss the bottle into the empty lot next to the store-turning the space into a dangerous, glinting sea of glass. Dunn approached the men and proposed that they collect the bottles and give them to him. Dunn sold the bottles and split the money with the drinkers, closing the circle (and cleaning up the lot).
"That is kind of the context of the Resource Center," he says. "Instead of making our society better through religious conversion or political change-systems which are entrenched with their powers-why not make one's activity that which is overlooked by industry and politicians? Look at resources that are possibly of no value and see if there can be an ingenious relating of the wasted human capital with the wasted material capital. If you are creative you can find ways of taking wasted human potential and engaging it with wasted resources."
Dunn steers his lumbering truck through a South Side neighborhood known simply as The Bush. Tucked just north of the mouth of the Calumet River between 79th and 86th streets, the area has plenty of boarded-up buildings and small homes. Eight or nine people, some with shovels, are standing at one end of a vacant corner lot where a dim rectangle of cement, the skeletal outline of a long-gone building's foundation, nudges up through the grass and weeds.
Dunn skillfully swings the truck left, then right, finally backing over the curb and into the middle of the lot. Then he dumps a large pile of dark compost into the middle of an area delineated with twine. This shipment is part of a program Dunn has negotiated with members of the City Council. The Resource Center has donated ten cubic yards of compost to each alderman for greening projects in their wards. In this instance, those ten are supplemented by 15 more that have been bought from him by Green Corps, a program of the Department of the Environment.
Diana Ramirez, a 48-year-old woman who lives in the neighborhood, has volunteered to help create the garden. To her, the giant load of compost isn't some sort of save-the-earth act of goodness. It's going to make the summer a lot more convenient. "I hate to say this," she says, rolling up her sleeves, "but we have to go to Indiana to buy vegetables. There's nothing around here but liquor stores and candy stores."
Karen Roothaan, a community organizer who is supervising the placement of the compost, introduces her teenage daughter. "This is Ken Dunn," she says to her daughter, who is interested in an internship with the Resource Center. "The compost king." (Later, talking about the manure deficit, Dunn will point out that the center's compost "did derive its excellence from its variety of materials.")
Dunn takes a few minutes to chat with the volunteers, who are busily spreading the rich dirt. And then he is back in the truck, headed again to the lot at 70th Street to pick up a load of paper for recycling.
"Today those people are in contact with the ground and enjoying real things," Dunn says, shifting gears and looking for the highway. "There is so much business involved in evaluating and reflecting on and relating to things that are not real. Most people share values by talking about the football game. But these are values of planting and getting your hands dirty in the soil together as a local community. It's exciting."
Photography by Suzy Poling