Mayor defends Whittier fieldhouse demolition
BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter August 20, 2013 3:00PM
Demolition crews dismantling the fieldhouse behind Whittier Elementary in Chicago on Saturday, August 17, 2013. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 22, 2013 6:29AM
Mayor Rahm Emanuel fended off allegations that the weekend demolition of a Pilsen school fieldhouse was a sneak attack akin to former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s infamous midnight destruction of Meigs Field.
Emanuel said he “appreciates the emotional attachment” that people have to the Whittier Elementary School fieldhouse, which they were using as a volunteer community center.
But he said the run-down fieldhouse was “unsafe for children” and should have been torn down three years ago, when a parental protest prompted the Chicago Public Schools to call off the demolition trucks.
“Three years ago there was a discussion of just tearing it down. We’re not doing that. We’re taking it down and building something new to replace it,” he said.
“Building up a new AstroTurf field, a new basketball court and a new playground that is safe for kids is exactly the right thing to do for the families . . . in and around Whittier. . . . That was not the case three years ago. There was no commitment to the neighborhood to make the type of investment which we are making now.”
Emanuel likened the Whittier protests, which triggered 10 weekend arrests, to last year’s overnight campus sit-in at Brian Piccolo Elementary Specialty School in West Humboldt Park.
During that February 2012 demonstration, protesters vowed to remain at Piccolo until Emanuel and CPS backed off their “turnaround” plan to empower the Academy for Urban School Leadership to fire teachers and staff and overhaul the curriculum while students remained in place.
“They were very upset. You all covered it. What you haven’t covered is, where is Piccolo after a year of the turnaround?” Emanuel said.
Emanuel came armed with what he called the “data points” to answer his own rhetorical question.
Piccolo’s reading scores are up 11.5 percent. Math scores are up 13 percent. Science scores are up 21 percent. And the number of broken windows dropped to two.
“Now, I don’t know where the protesters were that occupied the building. But I know where the kids of Piccolo are headed. . . . So, when everybody said, ‘Don’t touch a neighborhood school,’ the windows didn’t break and the kids did well,” the mayor said.
“None of you have been back. I understand. There wasn’t any screaming. . . . You probably won’t go follow the kids that will go play at that [Whittier] playground a year from now. . . . But when all the news lights go off and you have to pay attention to something else, know that at Piccolo school over the year,” things got better for the kids.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that Emanuel’s handpicked school team was so concerned about the structural integrity of a Pilsen school fieldhouse — and in such a rush to tear it down — they didn’t even wait to get a demolition permit.
Instead, the city’s Department of Buildings issued an administrative order to the Chicago Public Schools paving the way for demolition of the Whittier fieldhouse.
On Tuesday, CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll acknowledged that the system got a structural engineering report about the fieldhouse in May that was virtually identical to the August report that prompted the demolition.
Why wasn’t the fieldhouse torn down in May?
“We had another [structural-engineering report] done because we wanted to get another gut-check on it. And it came back reinforcing what we had known,” Carroll said. “Knowing that we had only a few days before teachers were gonna be back in school and that children were gonna be back in school in another week, we decided we had to take immediate action, given the immediate threat that the building posed.”
After reading the structural-engineering reports in May and August, Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said she would not have felt safe walking past the Whittier fieldhouse during strong winds.
“I actually led a school district when a roof collapsed and children were in school — not outside. The potential for the danger of the children [is such that] I don’t think it matters when you get the report,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that that building would not potentially cause a danger to children or adults in that community. We wanted to make sure this was down and done for children to start school and we could begin building” the new playground.