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Whittier Playground Officially Opens on Site of Former Fieldhouse

By DNAinfo Staff on May 31, 2014 1:31pm  | Updated on June 1, 2014 6:12pm

  Despite some jeers, neighbors mostly cheered Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the ribbon-cutting of the new area.
Whittier Playground Officially on Site of Former Fieldhouse
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PILSEN — The new playground at Whittier Elementary School officially opened Saturday on the site of a demolished fieldhouse, which served as the scene of a weeks-long sit-in in 2010.

Saturday's event caps a contentious few years for the site that was nearly converted into a soccer field for a private school.

While many at the event were unsatisfied with the facilities available at Whittier, notably the lack of a library, most of those attending the event praised the new facilities that includes a playground, artificial turf and basketball courts.

"I believed in the fieldhouse. We got what we needed, but we need more," said Araceli Gonzalez, Whittier Local School Council president, who urged residents to work with the city for more improvements. "We need to fight for more. It's about Whittier. It's about Pilsen."

Gonzalez was among those who participated in the 43-day sit-in at the fieldhouse, which was later converted into a community center known as La Casita.

The fieldhouse, 1900 W. 23rd St., was torn down in August after city crews ordered a dance class to leave the building. 

Parents and organizers complained that Chicago Public Schools, which owns the building, gave no prior notice of plans to raze it. Afterward, Ald. Danny Solis told neighbors that the demolition "had to happen." A report on the building's structure found it "is in a very advanced state of deterioration."

The $1.5 million playground, paid for with Tax Increment Financing dollars, is part of $3.5 million in improvements at Whittier since 2011, including a science lab and a computer lab, the city said.

"This investment in the Pilsen community will ensure students, parents and community members have access to a safe and fun recreation space that will promote activity to boost their health and well being," Emanuel said in a statement. "Playing, exercise, and engaging in team sports are crucial building blocks in our children building friendships, developing long-term healthy habits, and learning the value of teamwork.”

Though Saturday's event was attended largely by children playing on the slides or shooting hoops as well as adults supporting the opening of a new public space for the neighborhood, a handful of critics voiced their displeasure about the outcome.

"This is a slap in the face to the community," said Carolina Gaer, a Pilsen resident who participated in the 2010 sit-in.

"Of course we want them [children] to enjoy themselves, but why does it have to be one or the other," she said about the lack of a library.

Gaer, who lives in Pilsen though has no children attending Whittier, was among a group who greeted Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who cut a ribbon at the school, with jeers criticizing him of closing schools and depriving her neighborhood of educational needs.

"Dónde está la biblioteca?" a group briefly chanted, asking in Spanish where a promised library was.

Solis said the mayor is aware of the need and there will be a dedicated library in Whittier in the near future.

Parents and neighbors supporting the playground took offense to the protests.

"My son told me that 'I came here to play basketball, not see a riot,'" said Tina Iturralde, a mother of two who has lived near Whittier for five years.

Others directed their praise at Emanuel, including Alex Aneya, director of ABC-Pilsen, which was hosting a basketball tournament on the new courts.

"Mayor Emanuel, thank you for knocking down that fieldhouse and building us a new playground," Aneya said.

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