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Neighbors Fight for Access to Uptown Park

 A group of neighbors in Uptown wants more access to a park behind  Uplift Community High School  that school officials argue should be locked after school hours to ward off gang bangers.
Lakeside Area Neighbors Association: Open the Park
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UPTOWN —  A group of neighbors in Uptown wants more access to a park behind Uplift Community High School that school officials argue should be locked after school hours to keep gangs away.

In September, Chicago Public Schools installed a gate around Joan F. Arai Campus Park, a grassy park in the 800-900 block of West Leland Avenue that still bears the name of the middle school at 900 W. Wilson Ave. that was phased out and transformed into Uplift in 2005.

A CPS official said that back when they installed the gate, complete with padlocks, there was some concern about gang members hanging around after school let out. The official added that since CPS owns the park, Uplift can close it if it wants to and that the school's principal can make that decision.

The Lakeside Area Neighbors Association said they've spoken to Uplift Principal Stephanie Moore and that Moore "insists that she will do as she pleases to keep the 'athletic field' safe," according to an email Lakeside Neighbors President Cindi Anderson sent to members last week.

"No one takes issue with student safety, however, student safety is not an issue after school hours, on weekends, and over school holidays, including the summer months," the letter said.

Anderson wrote that the block club knows "through personal observation," that the park is "not often used" by Uplift's student body of about 500.

The letter also said that Ald. James Cappleman (46th) and aides have met with Moore about the issue and that it was Cappleman's understanding "that residents would have access to the park when students were not in school and were not using the space."

Uplift does not allow neighbors to use the park — unless for specific purposes, and requests have to be made in advance — which members consider an unnecessary inconvenience for casual use of the green space.

Looking for support in doing away with this system, Lakeside Neighbors got permission to hold a meeting at the park on Saturday to strategize on how to best tackle the park issue.

Block club member Janice Reynolds, an Uptown resident for 12 years, said about 40 people showed up. Reynolds is a retired sociology professor who is helping spearhead the group’s efforts to lift the locks at Arai Campus Park.

“Ms. Moore has been very clear that she is going to be the dog in the manger despite the fact that the high school very rarely uses the park,” Reynolds said. “It is ridiculous to say that one principal can deprive the citizens of such a valuable resource, and so we’re going to continue to put pressure on her."

Moore did not return calls for comment.

The block club is urging its members to write letters to officials with the Chicago Park District, CPS and city. Chicago Board of Education CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Moore, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cappleman are among the officials named.

Reynolds said she is also urging people to make requests to use the park.

Tressa Feher, Cappleman's chief of staff, emphasized that CPS owns the property and cannot be forced by the alderman to open it. Feher called the whole issue "disappointing," and said Cappleman has tried to work with Moore, but that it's "her call." Feher declined to speak about the validity of the safety issues brought by Moore, saying that the school's concerns lie within "her domain."

But, "It's our hope that the residents will reach out to CPS," Feher added.