When Froy Marchán was growing up in the working-class neighborhood of Little Village, public amenities were few and far in between.
“Growing up I never had a park. We would just make teams and play on the cement,” he said.
That changed back in December when the new La Villita Park was built next door to the Cook County Jail, only a 5-minute walk from Marchan’s house. But despite the progress, he says the park is missing something — a fieldhouse with a pool.
“I know for myself, I didn’t learn how to swim until I was 18,” he said.
Viviana Moreno agrees that a fieldhouse would bring all sorts of needed programming to the area.
“An indoor pool on this side of the neighborhood, a gym, probably an indoor soccer field, a garden, a space for seniors, meeting rooms,” said Moreno, an organizer with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). “Just places where people can just gather without being considered loitering.”
LVEJO led the effort to build the current park.
“The park is amazing and beautiful and it’s being highly utilized by community members, but we still need access to a space during the winter, we still need more resources in the community,” Moreno said.
Gang lines have split the neighborhood in such a way that, for decades, only kids living on the west side of Little Village could safely access Piotrowski Park. Marchan says he and his friends don’t want to walk from the Latin Kings’ side into Two-Six territory.
“It’s not that easy to go and just have an enjoyable time at Piotrowski Park,” he said. “Some of them are afraid of the consequences that might come with being asked where you’re from or running the risk of being hurt.”
The next closest fieldhouse is in Douglas Park. But many youth don’t want to cross the viaduct into North Lawndale for the same reasons. Plus, there can be racial tensions.
That’s one of the reasons 12th ward Alderman George Cardenas was a proud early backer of La Villita Park.
“But now stage two comes in where we have to fight for the fieldhouse,” Cardenas said. “And I even told LVEJO: Get ready because I want to get the fieldhouse, but I need your support.”
The alderman says he’s determined to find the $16 million dollars for it. In the meantime, LVEJO is holding community meetings and collecting petition signatures.
A Park District spokeswoman said the size and design of a park determines the viability of a fieldhouse. In a written statement, she added: “The Park District is committed to working with residents and elected officials to continually improve and enhance our parks. Should additional funding become available in the future, we would certainly consider adding a field house to this 22-acre park.”
Organizers point to Ping Tom Park in Chinatown as a model. It’s smaller than La Villita Park and equally narrow, but in 2013 they built an athletic fieldhouse for $15 million dollars that came from TIF and Park District sources.
Marchan says beyond the indoor programming a fieldhouse could help curb gang violence in his community.
“Having that available to our youth and myself, I think it would mean the world.”
Jacqueline Serrato is a WBEZ Pritzker Journalism fellow. Follow her @HechaEnChicago.