Kirstin Roberts was on Craigslist recently when she saw a posting that caught her eye: “Leftover furniture from the 49 public schools closed in 2013.”
Roberts is a Chicago public school teacher, and like a lot of teachers, she still feels traumatized by Chicago’s mass school closings five years ago.
“We had to go to meetings to beg to keep our school open,” Roberts recalls. “You know, just going through that process was terrible. And so to see this ad for furniture being sold? From those schools? I immediately clicked on it.”
The ad featured school desks, cubby holes. Oak library chairs were going for $50 bucks each. But one photo really got to Roberts: “Tricycles. Stacked up to the ceiling,” she says.
Roberts teaches preschool, and these trikes, she says, “They’re made of steel, they’re rugged, they last through generations of kids. But they cost an arm and a leg.”
And her students don’t have them. Yet here was some private individual selling what used to belong to the public schools. “Those are things that were bought and paid for by Chicago taxpayers and that really belong to the public school students of Chicago,” says Roberts.
She fired off an angry email to the seller.
John Preus remembers getting that email, just a couple hours after posting the ad. “Something like, ‘You should not be selling this,’” he remembers.
Preus is an artist — a pretty well-known artist. Before he went to art school he worked as a carpenter, and a lot of his artwork utilizes found or recycled materials. He’s an expert at making one last thing out of stuff that others consider trash.
A Chicago Public Schools facilities manager knew of Preus and called him. Preus had helped the manager clear out a school a year or two earlier.
After the district shuttered 50 schools, CPS embarked on a massive sorting operation, putting furniture in one closed school, textbooks in another — all with a plan to repurpose as much as possible. Principals were invited to take whatever they wanted. Nothing of any value was going to the landfill, officials promised.
Ultimately, it seems, a bunch of stuff was marked for disposal. But the facilities manager decided it was better to call Preus than to send it to the trash.
“I ended up with about six semi loads,” says Preus. An acquaintance loaned him an 800-square-foot building at 56th and State Street to use as a storage space. “I said, ‘Just keep putting it in there ‘till it’s full.’”
The space was floor-to-ceiling furniture: library tables, bookshelves, cubby holes, those stackable plastic chairs. “Apparently nobody wanted the yellow ones, so I got a lot of those,” quips Preus.
Preus says the district’s facilities manager told him “a fair amount of the stuff [from the 50 closed schools] got redistributed to other schools.” Some of what Preus got “was creaky chairs and stuff, but some of it was perfectly usable,” he says.
The ghosts of Chicago’s closed schools
Preus’ first art project using the material was called “The Beast.” It filled an entire gallery at the Hyde Park Art Center and was shaped like a gigantic dead steer, big enough for people to go inside. (The entrance was a slit in the animal’s throat.) Inside, it felt like a kids’ fort or club house made from their old desks and chairs. And kids actually hung out in there — there were poetry readings and discussions about school closings.
Preus has kept making artifacts that pay homage to the ghosts of Chicago’s closed schools. Recently, he got 50 other artists, designers, and architects — many of them also well-known — to make work out of the discarded CPS furniture. Their art is on display in a swanky West Town gallery that doubles as an Airbnb.
A yellow plastic CPS chair hangs over a fireplace. Artist Iris Bernblum melted a thousand crayons onto the chair. They drip down the seat and onto the hearth in a colorful waterfall.
There’s a xylophone made from a CPS library table, fashioned by MacArthur Fellow Walter Kitundu.
A lot of the art is marked with years of determined etchings by bored kids. A secretary desk Preus designed is called “Rafael Sucks,” because “there’s a scrawl on the front of it that’s sort of prominent that says that,” Preus says. “It must have been in some secluded corner of a library or something where you could sit and carve into the top of it without the librarian noticing.”
Amanda Williams — the Chicago artist known for painting abandoned South Side homes bright colors — has the work that most directly addresses the closings. Using pegboard from kindergarten cubicles, Williams painted 50 tiny panels to look like notebook pages. On each one, she drew a map of the closed school and its surrounding streets. They’re scattered across a mantle, like funeral cards made from the very stuff being mourned.
When he first accepted all this furniture — Preus basically saw it as building material. He isn’t an activist. He didn’t follow the school closings particularly closely. His biggest intersection with the public schools was figuring out where to send his own kids.
But these projects have brought him into deeper thought about public schools and about his six semi loads of material. “It had this social history that was maybe important to talk about rather than just thinking about it as any old random material,” Preus says. “There’s also for me a kind of politics in the material, where the way the material gets treated and thrown away seems to in some way parallel the way certain neighborhoods and schools are treated.”
CPS officials say they put as much as possible from the closed schools into use in other schools — that anything they threw out was either too roughed up or obsolete. District policy allows for property marked for disposal to be given to nonprofits or salvage companies. But Chicagoans have never gotten a clear accounting of where everything from the closed schools went.
‘If it’s good enough to sell on Craigslist … ’
Preschool teacher Kirstin Roberts says she supports the arts and artists, and appreciates that Preus is trying to keep the public conversation going around Chicago’s massive school closings. But she says Preus’ story just raises more questions.
“If it’s good enough to sell on Craigslist for $50 a chair — why would it ever be considered for a landfill?” asks Roberts. “We have a need in all of our schools, and yet the things from the closed schools are just being given away.” Roberts says anything usable should be in schools.
Preus doesn’t disagree with that sentiment. He wonders if the schools should have opened their doors for students, families, alums, or neighbors to take the furniture. With other artists, he’s thinking of ways CPS students could be trained to fabricate items made from the material he has.
There’s another unanswered question here: Why was Preus selling the furniture on Craigslist?
It turns out, there’s a very unexciting answer to that question: The owner of the storage space needed it back. Preus had to move 8,000 cubic feet of stuff.
“I thought if I sold a handful of things, I could at least cover the truck and maybe pay a few hands to help me move it,” Preus says.
In some ways, Preus found himself in the same situation as the public schools — he had a warehouse full of stuff that had to be moved. Now, CPS wasn’t holding it — he was. Suddenly, he had to deal in a pragmatic way with the same question he’d been raising through his art — how to treat this material.
In the end, Preus didn’t sell any of the furniture. He got some artist friends to help him move it to a different location; the Smart Museum gave him some space. Neighbors pitched in and they took a few things home.
Preus credits preschool teacher Kirstin Roberts and her angry email for convincing him he shouldn’t sell anything. “That response — that single response is enough to convince me it’s not a good idea.”
If closing 50 schools were less painful, maybe a Craigslist ad wouldn’t trigger that kind of angry response, five years after the schools were shuttered. Maybe no one would care about a guy selling some chairs. But all those dented desks and marked-up chairs have become symbols of something that still pains Chicago.
Linda Lutton is an education reporter at WBEZ. Follow her at @lindalutton.