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Whittier Fieldhouse Razed, Protesters Arrested

CHICAGO (STMW) -- The demolition of the Whittier Elementary School fieldhouse in Pilsen started Saturday after crews initiated their mission under cover the night before.

The goal of the Chicago Public Schools brass: Demolish the fieldhouse, aka La Casita, which Whittier parents had fought to save in 2010, staging a 43-day sit-in that resulted in a victory — to date hollow.

CPS insisted the crews, which they said arrived at 6 p.m. Friday were just removing asbestos — with demolition to follow. And it did as construction crews started demolition Saturday, based on pictures and Tweets from school activists. Twelve to fifteen protesters were arrested Saturday, supporters said.

"Among the district's top priorities is ensuring that our students have access to a safe and nurturing learning environment. 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 spokeswoman Becky Carroll said in a written statement, as the Whittier community learned the crew was on site Friday.

A community protest — the crowd swelling to as many as 200 at its peak — resulted in the arrest of three people, whom police said disobeyed orders to leave the facility Friday.

Word of the impending demolition spread quickly, and dozens of parents, students and community members began converging on the site. So did a virtual SWAT team of CPS-requsted police officers from several districts.

"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," Carroll said. "After the removal of this unsafe facility, CPS will replace it with a state of the art playground, artificial turf field and two basketball courts that students and members of the Whittier community can enjoy."

The community cried foul. This went against the myriad promises made — to the parents and in the media, they complained. They produced letters showing that CPS promised to renovate — not demolish — the fieldhouse.

"This is a criminal and violent act on this community. They stormed in at night, while we were having an Aztec dance class, and forced everybody out," said parent Carolina Gaete. "The three were arrested because they did not move as quickly as the police commander wanted them to. We had no notice, nothing, and the police told us they were there for demolition."

And why was this all happening late Friday, parents demanded to know, as a tense stand-off began with police.

"CPS is a liar, nothing but liars. They made a promise, and now they creep in in the middle of the night. Why now? Why at night? So no one sees this betrayal, this hypocrisy," said community member Chris Gevanis.

In October, 2010, then CPS CEO Ron Huberman had acquiesced to the parents' efforts — after an onslaught of media attention to a story that went national, followed by the intervention by a host of Latino lawmakers.

In a press conference and letter, Huberman agreed not to demolish.

A year later, his successor, Jean-Claude Brizard, formally reaffirmed that commitment in a letter.

The 2010 sit-in was staged after the district and the Whittier Parent Committee had disagreed on the severity of the aging facility's condition. Parents used the small structure to provide additional programming to their kids.

CPS had maintained it was so dilapidated it was unsafe; the parents, that it was not as bad as CPS made out, and that it could be renovated. The parents got their own inspection and architectural plan validating that. And they demanded it be turned into a library.

(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2013. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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