Last week, a small library and community center in a Mexican American neighborhood in Chicago was bulldozed, sparking outrage and attracting national media attention. At first glance, the building – a small, freestanding field house on the grounds of a public elementary school – seemed too modest to evoke such a strong response. And questions of the building’s structural integrity seemed technical, banal even. But the fate of the community center is a dramatic illustration of a larger fight over land, resources, and education in a segregated and changing city.
The first clue to the underlying story was the demolition process: no one at the community center was notified the building would be destroyed. Instead the police interrupted a Friday evening Mexican folkloric dance class, evicting students and teachers alike to make way for the bulldozers. Despite a rapid community mobilization – and an overnight standoff – the police and demolition crew persisted, ultimately arresting ten people before leveling the building. The mayor and city officials defended the decision by invoking the safety of school children, and the threat of imminent collapse of the building. It’s the same reason officials used three years ago when parents mobilized to save the community center. Then as now, they invoked safety to make decisions ostensibly for the good of the community, without listening to residents or inviting them to the table.
Moreover, the conditions that drove parents to defend the building in 2010 reveal a neighborhood school short on basic needs. Then, parents opposed the city’s plan to remove the building and install an astro-turf soccer field – a field that would also be shared with a neighboring private school. They argued that the public school needed basic repairs and educational infrastructure first – and in particular demanded a library. (Whittier was and is now again one of 160 public schools in Chicago without a library.) They also voiced fears that city and school financial resources would be siphoned off to benefit the private school. Parents occupied the field house for 43 days, until the school system conceded to their demands and allowed the community to keep the building. And while the city never came through on the promised library, parents and community residents created one in the field house, donating over 2500 books and running their own educational and after-school programs. The fieldhouse, nicknamed “La Casita” or “the little home,” was a symbol of community strength and resistance in the heart of the city’s Mexican American neighborhood.
The demolition of the library and community center resonates with a broader attack on public schools in African American and Latino neighborhoods. In the largest school closing in US history, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel shut down 50 schools this summer. When students return to class Monday, over 40,000 will be affected by the closings. And of the students forced to relocate, 88% are African American, 10% are Latino, and less than 1% are white. As with Whittier, many suspect that this is part of a broader privatization of education in Chicago, and worry the empty buildings will become charter schools. In addition, the displacement of students of color overlaps with the displacement of communities of color in the city through foreclosure and eviction. And both coincide with the aggressive development and gentrification of many neighborhoods such as Pilsen, where La Casita once stood.
While city politicians have defended the school closings citing budget shortfalls, they’ve allocated $55 million for a downtown real estate deal and new stadium for DePaul, a private university on the north side of town. The patterns of displacement, educational inequality, and the redistribution of resources away from communities of color are hard to dispute.
Parents and students haven’t given up – and are continuing to fight school closures and the destruction of La Casita. As city officials claim to have the community’s best interests at heart, and boast that they will generously be creating sports fields where the library once stood, others point out that wealthier, whiter schools aren’t forced to choose between a library and a soccer field. Moreover, it’s important to remember what the community has asked for. They have asked for a library, and to preserve the original field house. And last weekend, after the destruction of La Casita, organizer Gema Gaete stated: “We demand a new fieldhouse. The community will not stand by and let them turn Whittier’s land into a playground for private school kids. The Mayor and Alderman Solis are engaged in ethnic cleansing, trying to push low-income Latino students out of this neighborhood.”
The struggle is indeed for the fieldhouse, and the utopian community center it once held; but it is also a fight for the right to the city itself.
For more on this story, click here for Chicago Reader‘s take.