Parent group decries demolition of Whittier field house

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Activists attach a sign on the fence surrounding the Whittier courtyard where La Casita stood.

Activists attach a sign on the fence surrounding the Whittier courtyard where La Casita stood.

CPS’ sudden demolition of a small, one-story Pilsen community center and library has left a group of mothers stunned and demanding the district rebuild something nicer.

In 2010, the group staged a 43 day sit-in and successfully prevented the building from being leveled. On Friday, avoiding another long struggle, CPS officials sent crews to prepare the building for demolition and, early Saturday morning, they took it down. 

But organizers say they won’t give up.  

“Now they have to do the state-of-the-art building,” says Gema Gaete, pointing to architect renditions that her group La Casita Youth Center had drawn up. Pro bono architects worked with the group to produce a drawing of a sleek space that won environmental awards. The building would cost more than $700,000, but Gaete says the architects could scale it down to fit a more modest budget.

Three years ago, the fight over La Casita, which means “the cottage,” came to symbolize CPS’ heavy-handed approach to dealing with the community. And the insistence by officials to do away with a seemingly innocuous building where students were being served fueled conspiracy theories. Some said it was the focus of a backroom deal with charter schools or the nearby private Cristo Rey High School.

Even on Saturday, as the what was left of the building lay in pile on the broken ground, many could not help asking the question of why. 

CPS officials say the building’s structure was unsafe and that the community will be better off with the park planned to replace La Casita in the the courtyard outside of Whittier.

Though shabby on the outside, Angel Calderon says it was a place where she could go to hang out with friends, take an art class and borrow a book. This summer she borrowed the thickest book she could find. 

A folk dance class was taking place at the center Friday night when crews kicked them out and cordoned off the building.

“When you have no plans, it was a place to be, instead of sitting at home,” Angel says. Angel, who is in sixth grade, slept outside in front of the building Friday night. 

Her mother Delilah Calderon says she is often sick and La Casita gives her daughter a place to go, rather than “stay inside and stare at me.”

Parent, CPS came to an impasse

Gaete says she and others from the group have not had any correspondence from CPS regarding the future of the building since the summer of 2012. At the time, CPS and the group had come to an impasse over a lease agreement. In the 2010 agreement with CPS CEO Ron Huberman, he promises first and foremost not to demolish the building. He also commited to leasing the building to the group.

But when they received the lease from CPS, the leaders of La Casita Youth Center refused to sign it. Gaete says the lease would have given them too much responsibility for the property, forcing them to pay for insurance and giving the district the power to take over the building if they were late paying on bills. 

“We are just parents,” she says. The group also had to form an official not for profit before signing the lease–a step they have since taken. 

Gaete says the group sent over another proposed lease and never heard back. The group also was promised money, Gaete says. Letters signed by Huberman and former CEO Jean-Claude Brizzard state “CPS will work with Ald. Solis to reallocate TIF funds” and “with Representative Acevedo and Senator Munoz to allocate state funds.” 

Despite several letters to the elected officials and CPS officials throughout 2011 and 2012, that money never came through, according to documents provided by Gaete. Also, Gaete says that, when the group approached CPS about getting permits to do renovations on the building, district officials never responded.

Rather than press district officials to work out a deal and come up with promised funds to fix the building, Gaete says the volunteers simply continued what they were doing: providing free programming for children.

 “We were trying to be nice,” she says. “We knew they were dealing with other things.” 

 Building fails CPS inspection

But district officials paint another picture. 

CPS spokeswoman Molly Poppe says CPS’ general counsel never received the August 2012 letter–the last letter Gaete says they sent–and that no money was ever promised to the group. She places the blame on the parent group for not signing the lease and failing to bring the building up to code. 

District officials had their eye on the situation for some time. Documents provided by the district show that they had structural engineers do an inspection in May of 2013. The engineers reported that the roof was dilapidated, paint was peeling and water was pooling. “The building is in a very advanced state of deterioration,” according to the engineer report.

While the parents say they heard nothing from CPS about this inspection and another one done Monday, August 12, Poppe says she believes the network office had conversations with people from the school and the parent group.

Poppe says the district decided to demolish the building in order to get it done before school opened next week. By mid-December, a soccer field, two basketball courts and a playground will be put up on the site, she says.

CPS officials have maintained that a library should be installed in the school, not in La Casita. Leaders of the parent group, however, worry that the library will be put into a room currently used for special education pull out.

According to district standards, Whittier is efficiently used. The school’s population grew after CPS closed De La Cruz Middle School in 2008. The former De La Cruz has since been leased out to UNO charter school.

In the three years since the struggle began, the library in the school has yet to become a reality. Now, Poppe says that project is ready to go. 

CPS’ current plans are similar to the ones they had in 2010.  Gaete says she and other parents are not opposed to a soccer field, but that other fields are in the area. She says they don’t understand what CPS officials have against a community center and a library.

 Lisa Angones, a parent who is part of the La Casita Youth Center group, says she believes the move was political and compared the weekend demolition to what happened to Meigs Field. She says it broke her heart to see the bulldozer roll into it. 

 At her son’s graduation from Whittier last year, she says speakers noted that La Casita is part of the children’s history. 

 “I wanted to be instrumental in keeping it alive,” she says. “Now I have to be on a new mission. We have to keep our community alive. The fight is not ending here.”