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Whittier fieldhouse razed, protesters arrested

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Updated: September 19, 2013 10:11AM

A Chicago Public Schools wrecking crew early Saturday morning finished the job it started Friday night — controversially and without warning razing a Pilsen school fieldhouse that was being used as a volunteer-run community center.

Amid heated scenes at Whittier Elementary School, 10 protesters who’d camped out overnight in a failed attempt to save the run-down building were arrested when they tried to stop the demolition around 6 a.m.

CPS says the fieldhouse roof was dangerously close to collapse and that the building needed to be demolished in a hurry before teachers return to school Monday. It will be replaced with basketball courts, a soccer field and a new playground, they say.

But protesters — who won a repreive for the building in 2010 with a 43-day long sit-in that attracted national media attention — accused CPS of an autocratic land-grab, comparing its actions to former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s own notorious 2003 late night, unnannounced bulldozing.

“They pulled a Meigs Field in the dead of night,” said activist Gema Gaete, a member of the Whittier Parents Committee, which set up a library and has run English, dance and GED programs at the fieldhouse for several years.

As she stood beside the piles of debris where the fieldhouse once stood, she added, “If they had nothing to hide, why did they start in the middle of the night?”

CPS insists asbestos removal crews actually went to work at about 6 p.m. Friday.

CPS first tried to raze the building on safety grounds in 2010, but relented after parents and activists occupied the building for 43 days, saying their community desperately needed it to keep kids off the street. Former CPS CEO Ron Huberman offered the group a $1-a-year lease and offered to help it find the funds to renovate.

But a dispute over the lease’s terms meant the parents group never signed it, and promises of TIF funding from Ald. Danny Solis and state Rep. Edward Acevedo (D-Chicago) fell short of the $1.2 million CPS says a fix would cost.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said that “it has always been clear that if this field house was not brought up to code then it could be demolished” if it became “not suitable for habitation.”

That moment arrived Aug. 12, when structural engineers Perry and Associates noted further deterioration and found that “the building is not safe for occupancy.” Carroll said.

With just a week before teachers returned for the new school year the demolition “needed to be done quickly” and there wasn’t time to consult with the parents group, she said.

“They’ve had three years — they didn’t sign the lease,” Carroll added.

Still, Carroll couldn’t point to any specific CPS warning that the building would be demolished since Huberman spared it in 2010.

And documents provided by CPS to the Sun-Times show that Perry and Associates issued an almost identical report condemning the building as unsafe more than three months ago on May 5 — calling into question the rationale Carroll gave for the hurried destruction this weekend.

Quizzed about the matter, CPS officials said they needed the second report to confirm what they had learned in May.

Users of the community center said they arrived Friday night for a dance class and were shocked to be confronted by the bulldozers.

Kristine Mayle of the Chicago Teachers Union witnessed the wrecking crew finish its work Saturday.

“They just charged straight through the gate and tore it down,” she said. “It’s really defeating.”

Community activists, she said, “turned it into a beautiful community center that was a safe and loving place for children — now it’s just a pile of rubble.”

Chicago Police spokesman Veejay Zala said four women and five men were arrested for trespass when they tried to stop the demolition crew, and that a sixth man was arrested for criminal damage to a fence at the school. All were expected to be charged with misdemeanors.


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