The weight room at Union Park wasn’t much of a facility–just a dingy little room in the field house under the el stop at Lake and Ashland, but it meant a lot to the people who used it. On July 16 the Park District closed it. As one lifter put it, “something’s pretty out of whack” in a city that can afford to spend $475 million on Millennium Park but can’t afford a few hundred dollars to buy some weights for the people who use a small park on the near west side.

The weight room was managed by Columbus Jones, a barrel-chested Park District supervisor universally known as C.J. Born and raised on the west side, he’s something of a legend around Union Park, where he’s worked for the past ten years. “Everybody knows C.J.–and I’m sure everyone’s got a C.J. story to tell,” says Eric Hudson, a regular weight-room user. “First time I saw him he broke up a fight in the gym. These three brothers, straight-up gangbangers, were pushing this one guy. When other players tried to break up the fight, the brothers started beating on them. C.J. just pushed his way in and broke it up.”

According to C.J., he created the weight room about seven years ago out of an old wrestling room–there’s still a tattered mat on the floor. He brought in three weight-lifting benches and three bars that he owned, and people have been coming ever since. “We get pretty crowded at times,” he says. “Folks always are dropping in.”

By and large the crowd’s an eclectic mix of black men. Some are professionals like Hudson, a policy analyst for the state government. Some are cops and probation officers, and some are guys just out of prison and living in one of several nearby halfway houses. “It’s a good way to blow off steam and keep frustration down and stay off the street,” says C.J.

According to Hudson, C.J. keeps the peace. “He’s a man everyone respects,” he says. “I really never seen anything quite like the weight room. You have cops and ex-criminals–people lifting weights with folks they might have arrested. It’s very cool. No problems. It’s just a positive place for African-American men from divergent paths to come together. We talk about religion, politics, our jobs, our families–pretty much everything. Or we just lift. It’s a place where a professional might be able to help a young man out with a contact or resume.”

The room stayed open even when budget cuts forced the Park District to cut staff and charge fees for programs that once were free. The gym at Union Park was once open to neighborhood kids who wanted to play ball, but now it stays locked year-round–unless you pay to rent it. “We used to have all sorts of programs for kids–art programs, singing programs, sports programs–run by the Park District right here in Union Park,” says Stefan Morgan, a lifelong west-side resident who used the weight room. “Now everything is rented out. Their slogan is ‘come out to play’–but don’t forget to bring the checkbook.”

Many weight-room users believe the real reason their space was closed is that the neighborhood is gentrifying. “You’ve got a new breed of people in that neighborhood,” says one county parole officer who uses the room but asked that his name not be used. “They don’t want to mingle with a bunch of ex-cons at Union Park. There’d always been rumors they were going to shut it. But each time we’d check it out the Park District would say, ‘No, don’t worry about it.'”

On July 16 a couple of staffers from the Park District’s central office told C.J. to close the room. “They said the weight room was unsanitary,” he says. The next day he cleared out the weights.

“I couldn’t believe it,” says the parole officer. “Why would they mess with the weight room? We weren’t bothering anybody. Why would they go after a place that gives African-American men of different backgrounds a place to mingle?” He answers the question himself. “They don’t want too many black folks mingling in the same place.”

According to the Park District, the closing had nothing to do with race or gentrification. “The equipment in that park was hazardous,” says Michele Jones, a Park District spokeswoman. “We didn’t remove it because we were trying to get rid of the weight room. The equipment was not suitable–it was dangerous. From what I understand, it was not only very old, it wasn’t working properly. It wasn’t well put together. We used it for as long as we could, and for public-safety reasons we had to take it out. Believe me, it was not something we just picked up and did because we had some other use for the room.” She didn’t say anything about the equipment being unsanitary.

Hudson and other users say the equipment wasn’t dangerous. “Yes, the benches were old, but the bars were–well, they were bars and weights,” Hudson says. “Those were free weights. They’re just weights and barbells. They don’t get old. They can’t get old–they’re made out of steel.”

C.J.’s wife didn’t want him to bring the weights home, so he took most of them to the weight room at Altgeld Park, at 515 S. Washtenaw, where they’re now being used. “It’s too dangerous to use here–but it’s safe enough for Altgeld?” says one Union Park lifter. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Jones says the Park District would replace the equipment at the Union Park weight room and open it to the public again if it had the money. “It’s a hard time financially,” she says. “We don’t have the money right now to reequip the room.”

Many lifters find this hard to believe, especially when they see rich people pouring money into Millennium Park. Some of Chicago’s wealthiest and most powerful people, including Mayor Daley and his wife, were at the Pritzker Pavilion on July 24 for a $1,000-per-person fund-raiser to maintain that park. “Women wearing serious jewelry and stunning gowns were welcomed upon their arrival by ‘Adam and Eve’ greeters draped in leaves and dragging a snake,” wrote the Sun-Times’s Mary Cameron Frey in her July 26 account of the party. “In two big tents, Wolfgang Puck Catering served a dinner of beets and goat cheese, asparagus with prosciutto, potato leek soup with caviar, lobster and beef tenderloin with truffles. Tables were topped with white cloths and tall silver urns holding magnolia leaves; 10-foot-tall water walls were placed through the tents.”

The weight lifters don’t begrudge Daley and his friends their caviar and lobster, but they say it’s hard to hear the city cry poor in the face of such excess. “It’s all about choices,” says Morgan. “They just don’t want to spend a sliver of what they got on the weight room.”

Staffers at Union Park continue to turn away people who stop by to use the old facility, which is now locked. “We have guys coming in all the time,” says C.J. “I just send them over to Altgeld.” It’s the closest park with a weight room, about three miles away.

Out of curiosity I called a Sportmart store to see how much it would cost to replace the equipment. “You’re in luck–we’re having a sale,” the salesman told me. “I could sell you a bench for $100. And I could sell you a package of 300 pounds of weights–that’s a couple of 45-pound weights and some 35s and 25s–for $150.”

So to replace what was taken out of Union Park would cost about $750, or just over $800 with tax. “Actually, you wouldn’t have to pay tax if you’re buying for a park,” the salesman said. “You’re in luck there too.”

Hudson says he’s taking up a collection to buy new equipment so the Park District will have no reason to keep the room closed. “If it’s just a matter of getting new weights, I think we could spread the word and raise the money,” he says. “I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if we open the weight room with new weights.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.