Members of a youth organization fighting for racial justice and based in Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood are reeling from the loss of their meeting space this week, after the city deemed the building structurally unsound and ordered it demolished.
The headquarters of Assata’s Daughters, located at 235 E. 58th St., was part of a small strip of storefronts. City officials said two fires hit the strip within 10 days of each other in June, ultimately leading to the city’s call to demolish the building in July.
Christian Snow, the executive director of Assata’s Daughters, said the meeting space meant a lot to the youth in her organization.
“Our young people saw our space as a home,” she said. “They saw it as a way to retreat from the rest of the world and to focus on building up their own skills, their own dedication to restorative justice, their own dedication to each other.”
According to Snow, the group had a five-year lease on the space from a community member who had inherited the building from his father. The landlord could not be reached for a comment.
Chicago Police Department spokesperson Kellie Bartoli said the first fire, on June 15, was “accidental due to a problem with electrical wiring.” That fire affected an abandoned storefront a couple of doors down from the Assata’s Daughters space.
The second fire, according to Bartoli, occurred on June 25. A witness reported a fire to police officers nearby, and the Chicago Fire Department was called to the scene. Bartoli said the incident is being investigated by detectives.
“Between the fire and what the firefighters had to do to put the fire out, it was pretty devastating,” said Page May, founder of Assata’s Daughters.
“We don’t know who did it or why,” May said. “We’re trying to … focus instead on explaining the political context of why this is so devastating.”
Gregg Cunningham, a public information officer for the Chicago Department of Buildings, said that in early July, the structure was ordered demolished because it was “structurally unsound in the aftermath of a fire.”
Assata’s Daughters was founded in 2015 in response to the killing of Eric Garner by police in New York City. It is known for leading the #ByeAnita campaign that helped oust former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in the aftermath of the fatal Chicago police shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald.
Lauded for engaging youth on the South Side, Assata’s Daughters provides political education, teaches community organizing, and even maintains a garden in Washington Park. In 2017, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick donated $25,000 to the group, raising Assata’s profile nationally.
“So many thoughts ran through our head — we’re a very visible organization, both in the community and publicly through the media,” said Snow. “And it could’ve had nothing to do with our organization. It could’ve just been about land or the developing area. It’s really hard to speculate.”
Snow said the group is looking ahead and planning where they will settle next.
“We’re focusing on the political education aspect of our organization and helping young people to parse out what has occurred, how this is affecting the greater neighborhood, and how it’s affecting them,” she said.
Snow and May, the group’s only full-time staffers, said they are grateful for the outpouring of support the group has received locally and nationally.
“We feel pretty great about the feedback that we’ve been getting and the love that’s been coming,” Snow said, citing messages of support and donations flowing in after the group posted about the fire and demolition on social media this week.
Snow said the group is accepting donations for rebuilding, ideally in Washington Park or the surrounding area. The group had initially settled in Washington Park “because of both the history of strong black presence in the neighborhood, but also the history of divestment,” she said.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.