A group of parents and community members are calling on Ald. Danny Solis (25th) and officials from the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district to build a new community center at Whittier Elementary School, to replace La Casita, which was demolished earlier this month.
La Casita, which served as a volunteer-run library that provided computer access, English classes and after-school programs to local residents of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood on the Southwest Side, was torn down without notice. District officials cited safety concerns and severe disrepair to the CPS-owned fieldhouse that was being used as a community center until the moment a demolition crew arrived on August 17.
“What happened, I found to be very unjust, very traumatizing,” said Lisa Angonese, 52, executive director of La Casita and member of the Whittier Parents Committee (WPC), which ran the community center’s programming. “We saw a demolition of a precious and valuable building right before our very eyes, traumatizing to the parents, children and members of the community.”
Roughly 50 community members marched from Whittier, at 1900 W. 23rd St., to Solis’ office Tuesday to demand a meeting with the alderman, calling on him to rebuild La Casita. From there, the group, including Angonese, hosted a public forum at Rudy Lozano Chicago Public Library to strategize and devise plans for a new community center.
The district has said the fieldhouse would have cost $1.2 million for renovation and will now be turned into a playground, a field with artificial turf, and two basketball courts available for community use.
“Now everything in there, even the computers ... Are sitting in a big grey box on the Whittier lot,” said Angonese, whose two children both attended Whittier and regularly rented some of the center’s 2,000 donated library books. “What are they going to do with that? Steal our goods, too? Steal our materials that were meant for the kids and the community? They’re not going to do that, we’re going to use those materials in our new building."
Angonese said the WPC wants to file a lawsuit against CPS, adding that the group’s lawyer is looking into the circumstances surrounding La Casita’s demolition. She alleged that arrests of 10 protesters trying to stop the demolition was spurred by the fact that the community center’s volunteers didn’t receive any notice prior to the demolition.
“We didn’t even have time to contact our lawyer,” she said.
Here’s more from Angonese at Tuesday’s public forum:
The city’s Department of Buildings issued an administrative order for the fieldhouse’s demolition, allowing CPS to bypass a permit to tear down the building, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
City officials told the newspaper that administrative orders allow for buildings to be bulldozed “on an emergency basis” without a demolition permit and that they wanted the building torn down before the beginning of the school year.
“The building was in bad shape, I’m not going to deny that,” said Jose Diosdado, 55, whose two children, ages nine and 14, both attend Whittier Elementary and visited the library several times every week. “But CPS and our elected officials could have fixed it up, rather than destroying it.”
Diosdado, who participanted in the march and signed up for a meeting with Solis at his office, added that the community can use athletic facilities at nearby Harrison Park and Benito Juarez Community Academy High School. The community and students, he said, would make better use of a new public educational facility because Whittier doesn’t have a library and has a “sorry excuse of a book collection.”
“In the name of La Casita, I wish for them to keep their word and build a new library for the school,” he said.
The district first tried to demolish the community center in 2010, but was stopped by parents and community members who staged a 43-day sit-in.The parents say Ron Huberman, the then-CEO of CPS, promised funding for the renovation of La Casita. In a letter dated October 27, 2010, Huberman agreed to help the WPC “work with elected officials to find tax increment finance (TIF) dollars and/or state of Illinois dollars to pay for improvement to the fieldhouse.”
But the agreement was contingent on a $1 lease Huberman offered the WPC, which was never sanctioned because CPS did not approve WPC’s amendments to the contract.
According to the group, in 2010 State Rep. Edward Acevedo (D-Chicago) also promised La Casita state funding for the building’s renovations.
At that time, Whittier was one of 164 schools in CPS operating without a library staffed by a trained librarian, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“They violated our rights as humans,” said Roxana Licona, 34, of the police presence and multiple arrests on the day of La Casita’s demolition.
A volunteer at the community center, Licona was scheduled to teach a dance class in the building when police officers arrived to enforce the demolition. She was handcuffed, but not arrested, on Saturday when she tried to stop the bulldozers.
Lincona believes CPS is “destroying the future of the children” by denying them a space in which they can “learn and grow for free”:
Meanwhile, Angonese said the fight for La Casita isn’t over.
“I really felt like we were doing something to help the community, just by being here,” she said.
Angonese added that the parents would not give up and plan to “have La Casita rebuilt, the way it should have been.”
“There’s still hope.”