By John Byrne
8:21 PM EDT, August 20, 2013
Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday defended the unexpected weekend demolition of the Whittier Elementary School field house, saying the building was unsafe and the playground and sports fields slated to replace it will be better for kids in the Pilsen neighborhood.
Three years ago, activists staged a 43-day sit-in in the field house and prevented Chicago Public Schools from knocking down the building where various community programs were held. The protesters said they had no warning before city workers arrived Friday night at the field house and demolished it by Saturday morning.
Emanuel said Tuesday that unlike in 2010, when predecessor Richard Daley was mayor and Ron Huberman was the school district's CEO, the latest plan calls for improvements.
"Three years ago, as you know, people opposed taking down a facility that wasn't safe. And that's all they wanted to do. I didn't think that was the right thing to do," Emanuel said. "So after studying it — and it is unsafe for children — there will be a new AstroTurf (field), which wasn't discussed before, a new basketball court, which wasn't discussed before, three years ago, a new playground, which wasn't discussed before."
Last week an engineering firm hired by CPS reported that the field house had water damage and that its roof and walls had deteriorated. In May the firm issued a near-identical report. The city Buildings Department issued the demolition order Friday.
Asked Tuesday why there was a rush to immediately demolish the field house, school district CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said that once the "potential for the danger of the children" came to her attention in the latest report, she decided it was time to act.
"I don't think it matters when you get the report. We were in the midst obviously of a lot going on," Byrd-Bennett said after cutting the ribbon with Emanuel at the new Jones College Prep High School campus in the South Loop. "But I wanted to make sure that building would not potentially cause a danger or a hazard to children or adults in that community."
The move on Whittier has drawn comparisons to Daley's much-debated, 2003 middle-of-the-night destruction of Meigs Field to make way for a park.
The protesters argued in 2010 that it would make more sense to renovate the field house into a library for Whittier. Their sit-in garnered national attention. The school district eventually agreed that the Whittier Parent Committee would lease the field house for $1 a year if the committee raised the money to renovate it.
The committee did not sign the lease or raise the renovation money in the midst of ongoing disagreements with the school district.
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