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Future Of APO Building Uncertain As Tempers Flare Among Artists, Activists

By Ariel Cheung | October 31, 2017 6:17am
 Students who participate in the J-DEF program, which is based in the APO building, attended a meeting Saturday set to discuss the building's future.
Students who participate in the J-DEF program, which is based in the APO building, attended a meeting Saturday set to discuss the building's future.
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DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung

PILSEN — A heated meeting over a proposed community center at the APO building at 1438 W. 18th St. erupted into shouting matches between factions of the activist and artist communities in Pilsen on Saturday.

Ultimately, the three-hour debate between the artists who already inhabit the building and the newly formed Friends of APO who want to play a role in its future ended with some agreeing to work together for the community center.

"I want to invite the people in the building now to have a dialogue so we're not screaming at each other," Friends of APO member Anderson Chaves said. "Come back and talk. I want to hear."

But with mistrust sown on both sides, it will be an uphill battle to do so together.

Friends of APO, still reeling from the loss of the Casa Aztlan community center after it was foreclosed on in 2012, called the meeting to discuss the APO building's history and their vision for a new community center there.

The APO building at 1438 W. 18th St. is home to an artist collective, but some want to see it turned into a community center. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

They said losing Casa Aztlan was a harsh wakeup call to financial realities, and they fear the same could happen with the APO building, which served as a hub for Latino workers and their families for decades but has become less active in recent years.

RELATED: Community Center Proposed For APO Building, But Artists Already Using It

Leticia Guerrero, who manages daily operations in the building, said the building is in "full compliance" and not under any threat of being taken away — except by the Friends of APO.

From the start of the meeting, Guerrero and her supporters challenged the Friends of APO, yelling over them at length. At one point, community artist Jeff Maldonado marched in with around 20 students from his J-DEF Peace Project, which is based in the APO building, although it largely operates offsite.

"You want to talk about the youth? This is the youth, right here," Guerrero said. "You're talking about something that is already being curated for them right now."

Students who attend programs based in the APO building came to a Saturday meeting about its future as adults argued over them. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

The act disturbed those in Friends of APO, who said they felt the children were being used as tokens and made to witness screaming matches among adults.

"I say shame for anyone who had a part in that," Pilsen Alliance President Magda Ramirez-Castaneda said. "There was a lack of respect for the youth here today."

Friends of APO want to see the building returned to full vibrancy, with a year-round schedule of cultural and advocacy events not currently offered in a rundown building that is too expensive to heat in the winter.

Leticia Guerrero (right) handles daily operations of the APO building. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

They want to raise money and apply for grants to do so, but fear that without a plan involving everyone, the APO building will be lost before they get the chance.

But Guerrero said it would be hard to work with people she believes are inventing danger in order to wrest control of the building from the APO board.

"After what they've done, would you be willing to sit at the table and try to work with the people that are trying to jeopardize the building that we're trying to save?" Guerrero said Monday. "Who would want to work with them?"

Still, she said the APO board would look into scheduling a special meeting to discuss its own efforts toward establishing a community center.

Does the APO building need saving?

A central question left unanswered after Saturday's meeting was whether the APO building was under threat or not.

The building had two minor violations during its most recent city inspection in November, but officials said there are no pending issues. Cook County records show no sign of a foreclosure lawsuit or owed taxes.

County records do erroneously list a lawsuit against 1430 W. 18th St. — home to Pilsen Vintage and Thrift — but that case is unrelated to the APO building, officials confirmed.

"I don't know what 2018 may bring, but as of 2017, we're good," Guerrero said.

Friends of APO, however, said when they began to look into the building's status, officials told them the tax exemption granted to the previous owners was under investigation. The Latino American Council of Christian Churches gave the building to APO in 2000, and it continues to be listed under a tax exemption, officials confirmed.

Should that be revoked, building owners could owe taxes for at least three years, totalling tens of thousands of dollars, Friends of APO member and real estate broker Soledad Hernandez said.

The Cook County Assessor's Office did not return a request for comment on the building's tax-0exempt status Monday afternoon.

Guerrero said she is aware of the issue and working to fix it, but declined to provide further details. During the meeting, she said Friends of APO was conspiring to get the exemption revoked to force the APO board to sell the building.

"If you're going to challenge that, definitely, we'll be in danger of losing the building," Guerrero said. "You're worried about crucial areas of the community being lost, but you want to challenge the only viable center we have."