PILSEN — The Whittier Elementary School fieldhouse, the scene of a much publicized sit-in in 2010, was demolished Saturday after crews surprised a class of dance students and ordered them out of the building Friday night.
Activists — some of whom participated in the 2010 sit-in that kept the building from being turned into a soccer field for a private school — kept a vigil in front of the building known as La Casita from 6 p.m. Friday until it was torn down.
Parents and organizers complained that Chicago Public Schools, which owns the building, gave no prior notice of plans to raze it. Activists thought they had won a reprieve Friday night, when CPS agreed to meet with them Saturday morning. Ald. Danny Solis (25th) said late Friday on his Facebook page he would attend the meeting as well.
But that meeting never happened. A CPS spokeswoman said the Whittier Parents Committee declined the district's offer to meet. Parents said CPS would only host the meeting away from La Casita — in the Ogden district police station.
"We didn't want to leave the demolition trucks. We didn't want to leave the scene. Period," said the council's executive director, Lisa Angonese, 52. Several parents said they were fearful construction crews would begin demolition if activists stopped blocking the trucks.
Ald. Solis, meanwhile, did not appear at a planned event at Benito Juarez Academy. No one answered the phone at his ward office, and an ABC7 reporter tweeted she was told Solis was out of town and would not be commenting. A spokesperson, however, later sent a statement in which Solis said he learned the fieldhouse was "no longer safe," and said he is "committed to working with CPS and the Whittier community to continue improvements at Whittier."
“He just destroyed a public library. He could have stepped up like he did last time and stopped it if he really wanted to,” said Gema Gaete, 38, a community activist who attempted to set up a meeting with CPS.
“I think they’re going to move ahead and get all of this accomplished today,” said former Whittier teacher Noreen Guetkanst, 58, before crews razed the building. “It’s so sneaky and underhanded and dishonest.”
About 6 a.m. Saturday, activists demanded to see work orders, forcing construction workers to leave to retrieve them. The protesters then blocked an alley and the main entrance so that construction vehicles could not access the site. Shortly after 9 a.m., a bulldozer drove through the fence surrounding it, allowing workers and equipment to enter.
Activists then rushed the building, linking arms trying to prevent the demolition. Police said 10 people were arrested. Nine are expected to be charged with criminal trespass and one for criminal damage to property.
The fieldhouse, which became a community center called La Casita, was occupied with students learning Aztec dance Friday evening, when CPS representatives arrived, explaining the building was due to be razed and telling them to leave, witnesses said. At least three people were arrested, according to protesters.
At the protest's peak, as many as 200 people stood outside the Whittier property, 1900 W. 23rd St., which was fenced off and guarded by Chicago police officers. Protestors claimed CPS staff arrived with no prior notice. One said it reminded him of Mayor Richard M. Daley's demolition of Meigs Field.
"Why would they do that on a Friday evening?" asked Susana Findley, who teaches classes at La Casita. "It's underhanded stuff."
Former CPS CEO Ron Huberman agreed to terms with Whittier parents in 2010, including that the building would not be demolished. In 2011, his successor, Jean-Claude Brizard, reaffirmed that committment in a letter, and said funds from Tax Increment Financing and the state would be put towards renovating the building.
Roxana Licona, 34, a community member who teaches Aztec dance at La Casita was there when unidentified men came into the building and told them it was being torn down.
"They were aggressive with the kids and parents," she said. She saw donated books and computers being removed from the building, and stayed the night in front of it.
"I'm more than tired," she said. "I'm mad."
A CPS spokeswoman said the building was unsafe and its condition had been a point of discussion with a parents council for years, and would be turned into a turf field, playground and two basketball courts for the community.
"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," said CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll.
The project will be complete by December, and will be paid for with TIF funds, a CPS spokeswoman said.
A report from a structural engineering firm prepared earlier this month for CPS noted the building "is in a very advanced state of deterioration."
Community members denied those charges, however, and said their own structural engineering firm's report backed their claims, though that report said it would cost more than $700,000 to bring the building up to code. It suggested razing the building and constructing a new one in its place.
Community members now say they want a new fieldhouse built in place of La Casita.