Chicago Public Schools demolishes ramshackle, but symbolic, field house

Site of 43-day sit-in drew attention to 160 CPS schools with no libraries, became symbol of resistance and community power.

August 18, 2013

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)

In a move that shocked parents and community residents, Chicago Public Schools demolished an elementary school field house that activists fought fiercely to save three years ago.

The jaws of two giant excavators tore into the little wooden structure on Saturday morning and quickly razed it.

About 50 activists, teachers, Whittier parents and students —some of whom had spent all of Friday night outside the field house to stave off a possible demolition— looked on from behind fencing erected just 12 hours before. Some cried.

“It’s really, really appalling the way the city of Chicago does stuff like this,” said Nelson Soza, director of Pilsen Alliance. “In the middle of the night, on a Friday night. So that people cannot see and confront what’s going on.”

The dilapidated field house was the scene of a 43-day sit-in in 2010. Parents and activistis said at the time that they wanted to save the structure so it could be turned into a library for the school, which didn’t have one. The sit-in drew attention to the fact that more than 160 Chicago Public Schools lacked libraries.

Book donations from around the country poured in, and the push to save “La Casita” became a symbol for activists fighting  for local control of schools and self-determination of educational priorities. Architects, working pro-bono, drew up remodeling plans that never came to be. CPS documents indicate Whittier school now has a library—but parents say that is untrue. They say children have books in their classrooms, but still no library.

Friday night, crews pulled books and computers out of the field house. Activists and parents surrounded the structure to prevent its demolition. Several people were arrested Friday night. Ten were arrested Saturday morning as the bulldozers closed in.

Parents, teachers and community residents say they had no idea the demolition was coming. A press secretary for Ald. Danny Solis would not say how far in advance the alderman knew of the demolition. Many likened the demolition to former Mayor Richard Daley’s nighttime bulldozing of Meig’s Field in 2003.

But Chicago Public Schools spokespeople disputed that parallel, saying the building was unsafe and required CPS to take “immediate action,” with school beginning soon. Teachers report to work Monday, classes begin August 26. The district notes it only began cleaning asbestos Friday night and did not begin the demolition until the morning.

A structural engineer’s report dated August 12 found the building had fallen into deeper disrepair over the past three years. Problems listed include a “substantially deteriorated” roof structure and water ponding above the fluorescent lights in the drop ceiling. “The building is in a very advanced state of deterioration,” the report concluded, and is “not safe for occupancy.”

Community organizer Soza says “La Casita,” however dilapidated, had become a symbol of resistance and was being used as a parent and community center and library.

Not everyone in the neighborhood was sad to see La Casita go.

“For over a year, the roof on that house—when there’s a wind--it folds over,” said Estela Vasquez, who lives across the street. “Kids hang out by that little house; it’s a danger to the children who play in that park,” she said.

Chicago Public Schools says it plans to begin work immediately on a new playground, turf field and basketball courts to be located on the playlot where the field house once stood. The new fields will be paid for using TIF funds, according to CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll.

Since late 2009, many in the community have feared a plan floated by nearby Jesuit high school Cristo Rey that would have transformed the Whittier playground, parking lot, and field house into an artificial-turf soccer field. “We’re opposed to public dollars supporting private schools,” said activist Gema Gaete.