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In 2009. the Chicago Public Schools undertook a structural study and found that the field house needed to be demolished. About the same time, by pure coincidence, the CPS was negotiating to turn the playground over to the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, which was offering to spend $1 million to create a soccer field on the site, to be shared with Whitter students.
The CPS announcement that the fieldhouse would be razed evoked a firestorm. Parents and neighbors occupied the building and staged a sit-in, demanding the structure be saved and converted into a library. Whittier was among 160 CPS schools without one, and the activists received donations from across the country to set up a library within the field house, now named La Casita (“The Cottage”) After 43 days, the CPS capitulated, agreeing to save the building, with the parents charged with finding a way to finance repairs.
In 2011, a new mayor and a new CPS CEO started to make noises that they didn't feel bound by the previous administration's agreement. Which only served to re-activate the parents. They kept up the pressure, and in June of 2011 Jean-Claude Brizard wrote a letter to the Whittier Parent Committee stating, “The Whittier field house will not be demolished.”
Architecture for Humanity Chicago spent six months coming up with a detailed renovation plan for the fieldhouse, while the Whitter Parent Committee worked with local officials to come up with $564,000 from two area TIF tunds, and another $200,000 from the State of Illinois.
Whittier School, itself, got a million dollars TIF funding earmark to create a library in the old building. However - as reported by The Reader's Ben Joravsky - after disputes between the CPS and the parents, no librarian was ever hired, the library was never completed and the room - one of few at Whittier with air conditioning - is now a cooling center.
The parents never signed a proposed $1-a-year lease for the fieldhouse, and money for the rehab never materialized. So it should not have come as shock to neighborhood activists that La Casita again found itself on the hit list. How it was handled, however, was an object lesson in Chicago politics.
With no warning, around 6:00 p.m. last Friday, crews showed up to La Casita, chased young dance class students out, and began preparing the building for demolition. It wasn't until the structure had already begun to be dismantled that CPS spokesperson Becky Carroll issued a statement to the press: “Among the district’s top priorities is ensuring that our students have access to a safe and nurturing learning environment. The Field House at Whittier Elementary School has been deemed unsafe for occupancy over the last three years due to its advance state of deterioration and threat of the roof caving in . . .” This, of course, is the same claim of imminent collapse that the CPS has been clinging to since 2009, even as the building, itself, had endured without incident.
The late-Friday press statement is the standard operating procedure by which bureaucrats bury coverage of controversial actions by waiting to make the announcement until the time when there are the fewest number of reporters on hand to cover it. In the case of La Casita, this usually reliable tactic didn't entirely work.
never got a demolition permit, and the required State of Illinois form was so rushed it identifies the owner of La Casita as the Elementary School District of south suburban Lansing, Illinois. The Friday CPS announcement was accompanied with a rush-job rendering that looked like it had been done on a Windows 95 version of Microsoft Paint. It showed what is to replace La Casita. A lawn, a basketball court, a play area that looks pretty much like the present equipment pushed off into a corner. No replacement community center; no new place where suspect residents might congregate to learn to dance.
What happened on Saturday wasn't about the children. It was about sending a message. The 2010 sit-in gave people accustomed to being powerless a taste of what it's like to control their own future. Lives were changed. In the last election, Danny Solis was forced into a runoff.
It was a great show.