Community struggles with Whittier field house demolition
September 5, 2013
Police arrested several protesters who were opposed to the unexpected demolition of the Whittier field house. (Photo by Miguel Vaszquez)

By Daniel Kolen

What once was Whittier Elementary School’s library and community gathering place, La Casita Parent Youth Center, 1900 W. 23rd St., now is an empty brown patch of earth. On August 16, during an evening community dance class, a crew sent by the Chicago Public Schools fenced the property and began the demolition process of a building community activists fought strongly to keep three years ago.

About 50 citizens quickly gathered in protest that evening, and some stayed the whole night, but the demolition already had begun. Police arrived and arrested ten protesters. CPS personnel wrapped, tagged, and took away four computers, 2,500 books, a projector, and other items from the center. By Saturday, the building was obliterated.

Many who supported the community center were left angry, searching for answers.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Carla Bruni, a historic preservation and sustainability consultant. “If the spaces that are actually working and meaningful in neighborhoods are removed, you are destabilizing things.” “It was a safe haven,” said Gema Gaete, a volunteer with the Whittier Parent Committee (WPC). “It didn’t just serve the children of Whittier; it served the community.”

Unsafe?

On August 12, CPS sent Perry and Associates, an outside private firm, to assess La Casita’s safety. The building allegedly had rotted rafters, missing siding, and even a hole in the roof. Perry and Associates’ report stated the building was in “a very advanced state of deterioration.” Overall, the firm said, “the building is not safe for occupancy.”

Acting on the report, on August 16 Michael Merchant, commissioner of the City’s Department of Buildings, issued a demolition order to be conducted immediately by Chicago Public Schools. “Our top priority is keeping our students safe,” said Molly Poppe, deputy press secretary for the Chicago Public Schools. “Having a field house like that right near a playground isn’t safe for our students and isn’t safe for our community.”

Ald. Daniel Solis of the 25th Ward backed CPS’s move and said, “Out of an abundance of concern for the safety of the students and the Whittier community, the field house was demolished. I am committed to working with CPS and the Whittier community to continue improvements at Whittier.”

Even Mayor Rahm Emanuel publicly backed the demolition because the building “was unsafe,” he said. Since 2010, a well documented movement within the community has worked to improve La Casita, but the building was allowed to deteriorate.

Effort to keep La Casita

While both the CPS and WPC agreed the building needed improvements, the two sides have vastly different versions regarding how the building was supposed to be fixed.

In 2010, after a 43-day sit-in by the WPC, CPS agreed on Oct. 21 not to demolish the building. CPS also offered to give the parents an option to lease the building for $1 per year through either an existing or new not-for-profit group. Solis said at the time that the community would decide what to do with the building.

The two sides also discussed using between $356,000 and $1.3 million in TIF funds to renovate La Casita, while Illinois State Representative Edward Acevedo (D-2nd), according to the WPC, pledged an additional $200,000. When the City presented the lease to the parents’ group, however, members were shocked at what the City was asking them to do: be fully responsible for costs associated with the building’s liability and renovation without any of the financial help previously discussed.

“Their issue was money,” Gaete said. “They still didn’t want to take responsibility for renovating. It shows their total lack of cooperation.”

CPS’s version of the story differs from that of the parents.

“There was never an agreement on definitive next steps, and WPC never signed a lease agreement with us,” Poppe said. “We asked them to sign a lease agreement, and they didn’t sign the agreement.”

Officials held seven meetings between the CPS and the parents over the past three years about La Casita. CPS estimated renovations would cost $1.2 million, while the parents employing the firm Architecture for Humanity quoted renovations as costing slightly less than $800,000. Plans called for creating a structurally sound building that would house the school’s library and multi-purpose room. Since the demolition, CPS has said the library that occupied La Casita can be moved into Whittier’s “outcrop” classroom space. Currently, that space houses the school’s special education component.

“Again, this just shows CPS’s total lack of cooperation with the community,” Gaete said.

The future

While CPS is planning to build two basketball courts, an artificial turf field, and a playground at the site, WPC is asking for a new building similar to La Casita. The City plans to have the courts ready by December. The WPC plans to hold more meetings and make one more push to have a new La Casita built at the site.

The City’s and CPS’s treatment of the community has troubled many.

They “aren’t listening to what families actually wanted and ignored the fact that this was a positive, useful space,” Bruni said. “What does that say? If people can’t have any input in matters that directly affect them and their families, where does that leave us?”