Whittier Field House Demolished, Protesters Arrested

Time ran out Saturday for desperate parents and protesters to save a field house adjacent to Whittier Elementary School.

Chicago Public Schools officials moved forward with demolishing the field house in the Pilsen neighborhood, which they have deemed “unsafe for occupancy," despite the protests of many area activists.

More than 200 parents and community activists were staged outside the facility Friday night, three of which were cited by police for refusing to leave, arguing that the field house is used by several neighborhood families and must be saved from the wrecking ball.

Some protesters remained outside the field house, known as La Casita, Saturday morning attempting to save the community building from being torn down, many even camped overnight.

The group could be heard chanting "Not bulldozers, books."

But when a bulldozer struck the building late Saturday morning, protesters stormed the scene.

Several protesters were handcuffed and one activist was carried away by police.

Chicago Police News Affairs confirmed 10 adults, four woman and six men, were arrested during the protests after they "hindered the ability of construction workers and ignored orders given by police in both English and Spanish," according to Officer Veejay Zala.

One man was also arrested for damaging a fence.

The arrested protesters are expected to be charged with misdemeanors but no charges were filed as of early Saturday evening, Zala said.

According to a press release from Occupy Chicago, supporters have set up a fund for their legal support, which raised over $1,000 in a few hours.

Parents, teachers, community members and supporters plan to hold a vigil at 4 p.m. to "demand a new field house be built after the La Casita community center at Whittier was destroyed," according to the release.

"Ald. Solis and Chicago Public Schools have broken every commitment they have ever made to this community," Gema Gaete, a Whittier community member, said in a statement. "We demand a new field house. The community will not stand by and let them turn Whittier's land into a playground for private school kids."

Ald. Solis later said in a statement that the field house was demolished "out of an abundance of concern for the safety of the students and the Whittier community."

"I am committed to working with CPS and the Whittier community to continue improvements at Whittier," the statement read.

This isn’t the first time the parents and community have fought to save their beloved building.

Three years ago, they spent more the six weeks camping out in the facility demanding it instead be turned into a library and community center.

After the protests ended, parents said they felt confident when the school board offered a signed letter outlining the terms of an agreement that would save the building.

“Three years ago the board of education threatened to tear down la casita, the little field house here, and the parents took a stand and they were in here for over 45 days and they said ‘no this is our school, this is our community you are not allowed to take this away from us,” said former Whittier teacher Norine Gutekanst.

Years later, CPS said they have been in ongoing communication with the Whittier Parent Committee to resolve the issues surrounding the Field House.

The two groups have had roughly seven meetings since the fall of 2010 and CPS said they provided the WPC with documentation on how to bring the building up to safety code, per their agreement. But CPS argues parents have not met these demands.

Perry and Associates, a licensed structural engineering firm has conducted three inspections of the Field House finding it to be in “a very advanced state of deterioration” and “not safe for occupancy”. They also found that the roof deck has “rotted all the way through” and “roofing shows evidence of delamination for the structure”.

“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,” CPS said in a statement. “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.”

A CPS spokeswoman said the WPC never signed the $1 lease agreement to begin renovations on the building and did not take any steps to bring the building up to code.

CPS said they plan to re-purpose the area at Whittier for a new playground, an artificial turf field and two basketball courts, according to a release.

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