By Laura Zomosa –

You have reached Sawyer Elementary School. Para español, oprima número dos.

Sidney Sawyer Elementary School sits nestled between Brighton Park and Gage Park, just outside of the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the South Side. On an unseasonably warm Tuesday in March, students from Laura Gluckman’s sixth grade science class took a field trip like no other.

The gaggle of 10-and-11-year-olds poured into Plant Chicago for a tour, an excited knot of kids learning about the organization’s circular economy. Plant Chicago makes its home in The Plant, a refurbished former meat packing warehouse turned living laboratory in a struggling neighborhood that once housed the sprawling Union Stockyards.

Closed Loop Labs at Plant Chicago create supervised, interactive projects for students on topics ranging from vermicomposting to aquaponics, like the system pictured here. Photo by Laura Zornosa / Medill.

The Plant and Plant Chicago exist in symbiosis: the former is the mammoth brick building itself. It houses more than 20 small food businesses organized by the latter, a nonprofit group focused on coordinating a closed loop cycle of material reuse.

Both entities are linked through Bubbly Dynamics, LLC, the urban industrial developer that in 2010 bought the old meat packing plant. Eight years later, part of Plant Chicago’s core mission is to offer all of its educational programming free to community residents in the 60609 Chicago zip code.      

Chavez Elementary falls within this area, as do Hamline Elementary and Hedges Elementary. Educators from these Chicago public schools, as well as Gluckman’s Sawyer Elementary, made up Plant Chicago’s Education Advisory Committee (EAC) last year. Including the surrounding community is top-priority for the non-profit, neck-and-neck with sustainable business strategies.

Plant Chicago pursues a circular economy in more ways than one. The organization centers itself on a closed-loop model of reuse, redefining the meaning of waste. The building’s 100,000 square feet aim to re-imagine every inch of waste from one tenant business into fuel for the next. But circularity, too, exists in the ebb and flow between organization and neighborhood.    

“We also look to them for advice,” said Plant Chicago Education Associate Stef Funk. “So if we’re interested in starting something, those are the first people we’ll talk to to make sure that what our intentions are are in line with the community.”

By the map, The Plant’s refurbished industrial shell falls within the official community area called New City in Chicago, on 46th Street near Racine Avenue on the South Side. At a hands-on level, however – where the vast majority of Plant Chicago’s happenings take place – the nonprofit works primarily with the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

Much like nearby Sidney Sawyer Elementary School, Back of the Yards is primarily (51 percent) Latinx, and like other Latinx, Chicago neighborhoods (Little Village, Pilsen) has built a strong backbone of community. The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC) strings together social vertebrae, bringing together residents and services such as those extended by Plant Chicago.         

“Pretty much anything that happens here,” said Funk, “they’re the first people to know about it, in the interest of allowing the community to take advantage of whatever resources we have.”

The Plant’s collaborative community of food businesses – 25 tenants ranging from Pleasant House bakery to the Whiner Beer Company – have plenty of resources to go around. Plant Chicago maintains close-knit bonds with both the BYNC and the local Peace and Education Coalition, both of which disperse information on the services it offers, from a monthly farmers market to jobs for area high school students.

The Whiner Beer Company promotes environmentally responsible brewing by recycling spent grain into new resources within The Plant’s net-zero energy business incubator. Photo by Laura Zornosa / Medill.

Its impacts trickle down to younger students as well. “A lot of my students’ families work really, really hard and are very innovative and very connected to food culture as well, within Mexican-American food culture and Latinx food culture,” Gluckmann said. “There are people who work at the Plant that identify as Latinx [with] a lot of bilingual programming… That’s really important.”

Aside from within educational programming, bilingual accessibility features heavily in The Plant’s new Packingtown Museum. A meat rail system remains intact on the ceiling, where animal carcasses once hung, awaiting processing. Just down the hall, The Plant has repurposed the pork smokers of the previous tenant, food processing company Peer Foods, into bathrooms.

The space itself whispers of the industrial past of The Jungle’s bygone era, Upton Sinclair’s expose about the stockyards. A discarded sheet of easel pad paper reads “Suggestions/Feedback: Let us know what you think about the Packingtown Museum!” An anonymous note suggests “Meat (or fake, preferably) hanging from the ceiling would be awesome!” to which someone has responded wholeheartedly, “I agree!”

Many new Americans passed through this neighborhood and this plant. Scrawled writing in black marker refers to plans for an “IMMIGRATION TIMELINE: ” Irish → German → Czech → Polish → Lithuanian → Mexican → African American. Side by side across the room, two sheets – one English and one Spanish – explain the same thing: this wall will explore the impact of the meat industry on both the environment and the ethnic groups of the area.    

Coming attraction: The Plant is working toward completing a museum documenting its building’s historical significance for meat consumption and agriculture. Exhibits are planned in both English and Spanish. Photo by Laura Zornosa / Medill.

The diverse ethnic makeup of Back of the Yards ran the risk of aggravating historical social disorganization and other obstacles. A longstanding tradition of civil sustainability has helped alleviate issues from poor housing to unemployment: 1939 saw the founding of the BYNC, one of the oldest U.S. community organizations. Recent years have seen conscious living trickle down to even the youngest area residents.    

Sustainability in Back of the Yards and beyond have grown into a sense of stewardship, too. Gluckman runs a gardening club at Sawyer. “The kids who are in my gardening program,” she says, “are also … leaders in making sure that the room is kept up well, and that people are taken care of.”

There’s “an element of care” unique to environmental education, present in her students’ STEM projects and preserved in Plant Chicago’s circle of life, she said.

Photo at top by Erin O’Laughlin/Medill,



By Molly Glick
April 9,2018 –

Jim Gonksa left his home in Chicago’s Back of the Yards over 45 years ago when his father’s meatpacking job relocated to Bradley, Illinois, where land and rents were more affordable. Today, the majority of the neighborhood’s once-thriving meat processing plants have disappeared. The former Peer Foods factory site on 46th street lives on, absent of hanging carcasses and sausage linkers. The building is currently occupied by a kombucha startup, a beehive workshop, a bakery, brewery and a specialty ice distributor, among other niche businesses.

Today Gonska serves as director of community services for the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. He said he has noticed transformations in the neighborhood since his homecoming, particularly an increase in diversity and a drop in income due to the shuttered industrial giants. But the Back of the Yards could assume yet another identity in the coming decades as a different kind of business invests in the district. This time around, sustainable circular economies may replace assembly lines.

Peer Foods smokehouses have been converted into restrooms and breastfeeding stations. (Credit: Colin Boyle)

This is the vision of the non-profit Plant Chicago, founded in 2011 by Bubbly Dynamics, LLC. Plant Chicago facilitates the cooperative operations for 25 small businesses renting in the 93,500-square-foot facility known as The Plant. Plant Chicago has ambitious plans – it wants to change how we run businesses.

“Today we operate in a linear economy where resources are extracted, a product is manufactured and consumed by us…and then it goes to a landfill,” said Stef Funk, education associate at Plant Chicago. “Instead of wasting something, we’re redefining what waste itself means” among businesses at The Plant.  

The building’s tenants work to convert each other’s excess materials into valuable resources. Chickens roost in dried grounds from Turkish coffee-maker Four Letter Word, Funk said. The same grounds are incorporated into “bio-bricks,” along with a mix of sawdust and spent grain from Whiner Beer Company. Once the research is perfected, bio-bricks sourced from the Pleasant House Bakery could eliminate the need for firewood.

Plants thrive in the aquaponics system. (Credit: Colin Boyle)

Downstairs, an urban garden is illuminated by fuschia LED lights. Funk points to fish in a tank at the garden’s periphery. Here an aquaponics system pipes nutrient-rich water that is absorbed and filtered by plants and returned to the fish tanks. On their visits, local students gaze wide-eyed as they learn about how bacteria breaks down ammonia in the fish waste and provides plants with nutrients.

“It’s difficult for children to imagine things they can’t see, or even wrap their heads around the idea that there’s bacteria in here,” Funk said.

Plant Chicago offers free tours to Back of the Yards residents. Funk said that they are “the first people to know” about jobs at the non-profit and its interior businesses. Nearby high schoolers find work there, too.  

Plant Chicago also hosts farmers markets for residents, something Gonska said he doesn’t often encounter in the area. Gonska acknowledged how new businesses usher in much-needed resources. Still, there are concerns surrounding gentrification.

“We look at it as a positive,” Gonska said. “Any company that comes into the neighborhood, it’s positive for employment and the services that they offer the city.”

Now, Gonska sees less of the bakeries and butcher shops in Back of the Yards of his childhood. The last remnant of his father’s career here is the still-bubbling Bubbly Creek of the Chicago River, where decaying animal carcasses tossed there ages ago in a pre-EPA world continue to decay.


Photo at top: Stef Funk of the not-for-profit Plant Chicago displays a vintage blueprint of the sprawling Union Stockyards. The stockyards employed 40,000 people at its height in the Back of the Yards neighborhood where The Plant refurbished a meat processing facility, now home to Plant Chicago and 25 green businesses. (Colin Boyle/Medill)

Medill School Of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications
1845 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208-2101 © 2020 Northwestern University