Chinatown residents are inching closer to winning some city resources that they’ve lobbied for during the last several years. Chicago’s City Council allocated funding in September for a new field house to replace one that was torn down nearly 50 years ago. More recently, the Chicago Public Library and city officials identified a site for a new library branch and have started moving to acquire the property. The progress comes just as Chinese-Americans observe their 100-year anniversary in Chicago’s South Side Chinatown.
The field house has been a particular sore point for young and elderly Chinatown residents alike. “When I started fighting for this thing I had children,” said Leonard Louie, President of the Ping Tom Memorial Park Advisory Council. “And I think today my grandchildren are old enough to be able to use it. That's how long it's been.”
Louie himself used to play basketball at the old field house at Hardin Park, before the state tore it down in 1962 to expand the Dan Ryan Expressway. At the time, said Louie, Chinatown residents were promised that they’d soon get another field house. Instead, Louie and other residents say children now often play volleyball over sidewalk fences, because there’s no proper facility or community center. “It's definitely a problem because you just have kids hanging out on the street and looking for things to do,” said Louie. “You're in a situation where you're just asking for trouble.”
The Chicago City Council approved a $10 million allocation from the River South TIF District
to finally build the facility near the southern end of Ping Tom Memorial Park
. At that price, park leaders will likely have to pare back their original vision for the facility. “The original plans for the field house were to include a natatorium, which is an indoor swimming pool,” said Louie. But park district officials estimate that could cost anywhere from $15 million to $18 million. More recent field houses, like the Taylor-Lauridsen Playground Park
and Jesse Owens Park
, did not include swimming pools, and ran just below $10 million. Still, Louie hopes whatever the city builds could be expanded to include a swimming pool later. He and other park leaders are also exploring the possibility of raising additional money to fund the natatorium.
Calls for a new library have also reached the right ears. Though the current Chinatown library is far from large, it has among the highest circulation rates in the city. “It’s a very literate community,” said Chicago Public Library spokesman Ruth Lednicer. For a long time, movement toward building a larger and newer facility was stymied by an inability to find a proper site. But now Chinatown and city officials agree that a privately-owned lot on the southwest corner of Wentworth Ave and Archer Ave holds enough space.
Right now, the parcel holds a parking lot and a small grocery store, both owned by the same person. The city’s development committee recently approved a preliminary move to acquire the property through eminent domain. That matter is expected to come before the City Council at its meeting on February 9. But officials will also continue to negotiate with the property owner, who expressed an interest in jointly developing the land with the city to include a library.
Meanwhile, Alderman Daniel Solis
(25th Ward) said he’s working on getting a TIF district approved to fund the construction of the library. “Specifically how much, it’s too early to tell,” said Solis. “But the TIF would also look at opening up opportunities for other developments in the area.”
These developments are perhaps some of the early fruits of a recent political awakening in Chicago’s Chinatown. C.W. Chan, a founder of the Chinese American Service League
, told WBEZ
in May that as the Chinese-American population in Chinatown and its surrounding areas grew quickly during the last twenty years, the community’s needs grew, too. “Recently the community has really been working very hard together to really take an inventory of our community needs,” said Chan, “and to see whether we can really have a much better working relationship with our elected officials to present our needs and to secure the kind of resources that we need in the community.”