Yesterday morning, I saw the news on NBC Chicago’s FB feed that “La Casita,” a community fieldhouse on the property of Whittier Elementary School in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, was in the process of being torn down due to poor condition.
The back story is that the Whittier Parents Committee (WPC), the community/parent group running classes, activities & a library in the fieldhouse, had been meeting with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for a few years to work out a solution to both ownership and renovations. Promises of funding were made by state and local elected and appointed officials, but that never came through. In the mean time, the building continued to deteriorate.
There is some disagreement between the CPS and the community group as to what has transpired in the last few years. You can read more details in the best article I have found, in Chicago Catalyst (whose mission is “independent reporting on urban education”).
But, a couple things are indisputable: The building was in bad shape AND the CPS arrived unexpectedly in the middle of the night and tore the building down less than 12 hours after clearing out the fieldhouse the night before.
Also, in 2010, then-CPS CEO Ron Huberman acquiesced to the community’s demands, pledging the field house would not be demolished. In 2011, Huberman’s successor, Jean-Claude Brizard, reaffirmed that promise in a letter to Whittier parents.
As I re-read NBC Chicago‘s article, this statement, from a CPS press release, caught my attention: “A CPS spokeswoman said the WPC never signed the $1 lease agreement to begin renovations on the building and did not take any steps to bring the building up to code.”
That sounded incredulous, given the Whittier community’s fight up until this point. There was no rebuttal from the WPC.
Suddenly, a vision of Ms. Sherer, my high school journalism teacher who supervised our editing of the newspaper, appeared: “Where is the response from the WPC representative to CPS’ claims?” “Where is the balanced approach to reporting a story?”
I immediately found the phone number for the WPC and called. Their leader, Gema Gaete, answered. She told me that yes, the CPS offered a contract, but it was set up for failure – it required the WPC to pay all the bills, and if they were even a day late, the CPS would have eminent domain. CPS never responded to their counter-offer. Also, she said, it was CPS’ responsibility to keep the building up to code, not theirs. She invited me to the vigil that was being held later that day.
Because Pilsen is a largely Hispanic neighborhood on Chicago’s west side that is less affluent and less white than most northside communities, my immediate questions upon learning the news were: If this fieldhouse had been in Lincoln Park (an affluent neighborhood), would this fieldhouse been allowed to deteroriate in the first place, and would children have other options for extracurricular activities? Why do more than 160 Chicago Public Schools have no library? Why has the state never seriously considered funding schools through income tax, rather than property tax, something that’s been advocated by many better government groups for a long time?
By the time I arrived in Pilsen, the vigil was over, but the demolition crew was busy working, as it had been since 9:30 a.m. La Casita was completely leveled and there was virtually no evidence it ever existed. Families, other supporters and members of the WPC were still there, some being interviewed by media outlets.
A couple I spoke with, one of them a teacher at another nearby school, told me a few other things I had not seen in local media yet:
- CPS officials showed up at the door of La Casita, around 5 p.m. Friday, while a class was in progress. They told the participants that they needed to vacate, and CPS collected the community center’s property, including their library & said they would store it for them, but did not tell them where.
- Alderman Danny Solis told his consituents he would meet with them and the CPS representatives the next day, but he was a no-show. When CPS showed up at Whittier around 9 a.m., they immediately started directing the demolition. (Solis is among the 21 “rubber stamp” alder-creatures – as Mike Royko referred to them – who has NEVER voted against Mayor Rahm.)
- The basketball court & playground the CPS promises to build in its place is actually for the nearby private, Jesuit Cristo Rey High School. CPS says the Whittier students may use it occasionally.
I also got a chance to speak with the NBC reporter on the scene. I told her I was motivated to attend by her network’s lack of journalistic integrity. She surmised that the writers of the online version worked from a CPS press release. I appreciated her candid response and told her that this is a perfect example of why people like me, who have critical thinking skills and an understanding of the role of journalists in society do not follow mainstream media outlets like hers.
As I was leaving & the police re-opened the street, an ice cream truck entered the street and stopped for some eager customers – its familiar music & beckon to “smile all day” temporarily distracting from the screeching and clunking sounds of the bulldozers – the poignancy most likely lost on the city’s demo crew.