A field house at a Near West Side elementary school that had been the site of a series of community protests over its proposed demolition was torn down Saturday morning.
The single-story white building, known as La Casita to community residents, was located in the corner of a lot it shared with Whittier Elementary School at 1900 W. 23rdStreet. By about 10 a.m. Saturday, all that remained was a pile of rubble after the heavy equipment had done its work.
On Saturday, police officers arrested 10 protesters, charging nine with criminal trespassing to state supported land and another with criminal damage to property.
The building, which Chicago Public Schools officials say was unsafe and structurally unsound, had been the site of a sit-in that lasted more than a month in September and October of 2010, and there had been numerous discussions since then about what the building could be used for.
The protests were re-invigorated overnight Friday and Saturday morning. This morning, about 70 chanting protestors carrying signs marched down Wolcott Avenue, the north-south street on the east side of the school, in hopes of securing a meeting with Ald. Danny Solis, whose ward includes the school.
"This was something that was working for our kids, said Gema Gaete, an organizer for the group. "This was a safe haven."
The programming held at the field house, including a parent-run library and student classes and activities, help keep kids out of trouble, said the protestors, who hope to get another building to take La Casita's place.
Overnight, 13-year-old Angel Carrasco slept on her back outside the school on a parkway next to temporary chain link fences, keeping her and others from the small field house. She and a dozen or so others had gathered here to keep watch over the building overnight.
Two marked police trucks – one SUV and one wagon – parked outside the miniature protest throughout the night.
The building sat about 75 feet back from the fence, its lights on all night, and behind the fence was a taller temporary fence erected in about 20 minutes Friday night as protestors gathered nearby.
As many as 70 people, including many kids, had been here earlier but the crowd dwindled throughout the night to a handful of community activists and the Carrasco family.
Angel's mother, herself a former student at the elementary school in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood, had a 15-year-old just finish school here and a 10-year-old who is still enrolled.
"We want them to stop the demolition of the field house," Delila Carrasco said.
The field house served as the school's only library, one run by parents. The other half of the building was used for after-school activities, 15-year-old George Carrasco said.
Alix Gonzalez, a 36-year-old CPS teacher at a nearby school, said she was protesting so community members – some of her colleagues and children of her friends – would have a voice in the process.
"It used to be programming in both buildings," she said. "Isn't that what we need more of? Programming and schools to be open? That's how we're going to have less violence."
Becky Carroll, a spokesperson for Chicago Public Schools, released this statement Friday about the impending demolition:
"Among the District's top priorities is ensuring that our students have access to a safe and nurturing learning environment. The Field House at Whittier Elementary School has been deemed unsafe for occupancy over the last three years due to its advance state of deterioration and threat of the roof caving in. To protect the health and safety of our school community, CPS must take immediate action before students and staff return for the start of the school year on August 26. After the removal of this unsafe facility, CPS will replace it with a state of the art playground, artificial turf field and two basketball courts that students and members of the Whittier community can enjoy."
Carroll also said that CPS has had 7 meetings with the Whittier Parent Committee regarding the building since the fall of 2010 and that an agreement to lease the building for a rent of $1 to the Whittier Parents Committee fell through when the parents group did not sign the agreement and did not make required repairs to the building.
Today, the protestors at Whittier walked a few blocks northeast to Benito Juarez Community Academy, a local high school that was hosting a back-to-school event Saturday. The hope was that they would be able to meet there with Solis, who had earlier indicated on his Facebook page that there would be a meeting Saturday involving him, CPS and community representatives.
This afternoon, Solis released a statement through a spokeswoman, who said that the alderman "was informed by CPS early this morning that the meeting with Whittier (representatives) had been cancelled." It was not clear who cancelled the meeting.
Solis said he was told by CPS officials that the field house was "no longer safe for occupancy," requiring that it be torn down.
"I am committed to working with CPS and the Whittier community to continue improvements at Whittier," Solis said in the statement, mentioning the playground and basketball court plans for the site.
After failing to connected with someone from Solis's staff, the protestors headed back to Whittier, where they planned to hold a vigil for the field house about 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon.
The activists put much of the blame on Solis, who they say could have haulted the demolition.
"He needs to be held accountable," said Gaete.
"Mr. Solis ... why are you hiding," some shouted outside the high school. "You demolished our field house and you are nowhere to be found."
Some held signs that read "Alderman Solis you sold out your community" or "We need leaders who support our school."
In an e-mail, a spokesman for Solis Saturday referred questions about Saturday's meeting to CPS.
Raul Diaz, 13, said he was disappointed to learn that the shed where he played with friends had been destroyed.
"We usually play around in there, hide and seek, tag you name it," the boy said. "Now we have to relocate."Copyright © 2015, CT Now