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How landscaper Christy Webber (Inner City 100 2004's No. 54) mowed her way into the hearts of Chicago's elite.
The United Center is the storied home of the Chicago Bulls. It's where Michael Jordan led his team to six NBA championships. Near the main entrance there's a statue of Michael flying in a midair dunk. Few fans notice little else, but abutting the lot there are islands and medians, and four acres of trees and lawn. That's where Christy Webber first put her own indelible stamp on Chicago.
She cut the grass.
This was 1998 and Webber was just getting a small landscaping business off the ground. Mostly she maintained backyard shrubs and trees for the residents of upscale suburbs, but she was mulling grander plans. Her epiphany had come two years earlier, during the 1996 Democratic Convention when Mayor Richard M. Daley, the city's great green crusader, festooned the town with trees and flowers. Webber, a lifelong Democrat, was there when the Clinton motorcade rolled past on Ogden Avenue. "I still remember Clinton was reading a book," she says. "But it wasn't the convention. It was the city painting the fences, planting those trees! Seeing all that work going on and not doing it made me crazy."
Webber had a client, Kerry Fix, whose dad, Bill, happened to own the United Center. When the arena's $25,000 landscaping job came up, she called Fix, pitched her services, and got the gig. "She's got this get-go attitude," says Karen Sutherland, the arena's operations chief, "and I liked the fact her business was small."
Christy Webber & Co. is anything but small these days. It has 20 dump trucks and 100 workers. Signs with Webber's name are posted on half the highways leading into the city. Her business revenue shot up from $2 million in 1998 to $6.8 million last year, landing the business with a growth rate of 378% at No. 54 on this year's Inner City 100.
What's remarkable is that a modest landscaper has become a brand in this cosmopolitan city and a chum of its movers and shakers. Equally striking is that she made a name for herself with very little capital or money for advertising. All she really needed was charisma, a little luck, and a Ransomes professional mower.
Webber's headquarters are on the west side, a no man's land that burned during the riots that followed Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968. It's still a dicey neighborhood, plagued by gangs and pocked with decrepit housing, but it suits Webber just fine. When a tree falls onto a sidewalk she can be there in 15 minutes, unlike most of her rivals, who are based in the suburbs.
Chicago turns out to be a great city for a landscaper. Its parks comprise 7,400 acres. The largest, among them Grant Park, were part of Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan for Chicago, considered the nation's first example of a comprehensive planning document. Yet as it happens, Webber runs her business in Green Town--a district that appeared nowhere on Burnham's blueprint. Mayor Daley renamed the area, a broad corridor of crumbled buildings and vacant lots, just last year. His hope is to create a cluster of businesses that will include garden centers, greenhouses, and landscapers.
The initiative is vintage Daley. Since taking office in 1989, he has embarked on a huge beautification effort, planting some 500,000 trees--so many that, Webber says, "we can't even find trees because he's planted so many of them! I'm not kidding."
Webber has advised Daley on the Green Town proposal. They met in 1998 at a party at a Ukrainian church. Most everyone was too scared to approach the mayor. Not Webber. She told him that she admired his work, and gave him a card. Today, they are allies on many projects and, in fact, Daley encouraged Webber to apply for the Inner City 100. "She is exemplary of the kind of citizenry that makes Chicago the great city it is," the mayor says.
Green Town is as much Webber's dream as the mayor's. To tour the area, we climb into her Audi Quattro. She lights up a Marlboro and we head west under the el tracks, past dozens of new housing developments, then turn onto seedier side streets. A man watches suspiciously from a rotted porch. A police car drives by and slows; the cop seems to recognize Webber and waves. She waves back.
"It's really rough around here, but look at that pretty house," says Webber. "See, it's not all bad."
She drives to the Garfield Park Conservatory, which is a client. For years, only brave souls trickled out to tour this sprawling glass confection in the middle of a blasted neighborhood. Then the artist Dale Chihuly, whose work can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Bellagio in Las Vegas, installed dozens of fantastic sculptures amid the towering tropical plants and trees. Suddenly, Garfield Park was mobbed.
The main building now sparkles and the old horse barns have been turned into a market. "In the warm weather there are vegetable dealers," says Webber, "and arts and crafts stores. Over there will be housing for horticultural interns. Isn't that cool?"
Her own piece of the action is half a mile away at the other end of Green Town: a brand-new L-shaped building in the middle of an immense open tract that, until recently, was spoiled by 30-foot mounds of dumped concrete. In a pending deal with the city, Webber could lease two acres of land here. She wants to call it Rancho Verde. Her proposed facility will come with solar panels and cisterns and special pavement that absorbs rain. It also boasts a spectacular view of the skyline. There's even talk of a railroad spur so that Webber won't need as many gas-guzzling trucks. "Talk about a green idea!" she exclaims.
Clearly, Webber is an enthusiast. Everywhere we drive, something catches her fancy. She loves the mosaics that artists did on the pillars of the el columns. She's thrilled to be helping rehab an abandoned factory into artists' workspace. Back at the lakefront, she's even pleased with the new Soldier Field, scorned by many Chicagoans as an ashtray or flying saucer. "Some people hate it," she admits. "But I like it. It's goofy, weird, and different."
Soldier Field happens to be another client. Peter L. Schaudt, the stadium's landscape architect, remembers one planning meeting during which Webber, who hadn't won the contract at that point, managed to dominate the conversation. "What I like about Christy is her passion," says Schaudt, which is unusual for "an industry that's very insular and works in a cover-your-ass kind of mode."
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