When it was built 15 years ago the gym at Clemente High School was the pride of Humboldt Park. Today it’s the pits. “Call it a hellhole, because that’s what it is,” says Richard Tomoleoni, a gym teacher and the varsity baseball coach at Clemente. “It’s a disgrace.”

Among its problems are broken toilets, urinals, and water faucets. Windows are smashed, the gym floor is filthy, the locker room’s infested with insects, and the roof leaks. The gizmo that raises and lowers 6 of the gym’s 14 electronically controlled basketball backboards is on the blink, so the backboards can’t be lowered from the ceiling. The heat doesn’t work in the swimming-pool room. There was a fire in the basement locker room a few days ago and the coaches had to run to the second floor to find a fire extinguisher. The students can’t use the weight room because it’s locked and school officials don’t have a key. Oh, and one last thing: because of a broken water pump, there’s no hot water for the showers. Instead of showering after gym the students slip on their clothes over sticky, sweaty bodies.

“Try taking a cold shower, and you’ll freeze your butt off,” says Ferdinand Vargas, one of Clemente’s swimming teachers. “I tried it and I got a cold. It’s like jumping into a Wisconsin lake in the early spring.”

These many problems persist despite the repeated requests for help Clemente’s 14 gym teachers have made to school principal Jesus Sosa, Board of Education president James Compton, and Park District director Jesse Madison.

“We wrote letters to just about everyone we could think of, asking for help,” says Jim Dagostino, a gym teacher and varsity basketball coach. “We might as well throw the letters away. Maybe it’s because our students are poor Puerto Ricans and blacks, but no one seems to care.”

The Roberto Clemente Community Academy High School (named for the famous Puerto Rican baseball player) was built in 1974 after community activists protested that Tuley High School (now used as an elementary school)–which had served the Humboldt Park community since World War I–was too old and in disrepair.

The Board of Education could not afford to build Clemente, so Mayor Richard J. Daley saw to it that construction expenses were shared by the Park District. The school–built on the south side of Division Street at Western Avenue–is maintained and paid for by the Board of Education. The gym, across the street on the north side of Division, is operated by the Park District (which spends roughly $150,000 a year just on janitorial salaries). This arrangement, similar to one at Whitney Young High School, has been a source of tension for years.

“The school needed a gym and the community needed a recreation center; but the city didn’t want to build two facilities,” explains Erma Tranter, executive director of Friends of the Parks, a watchdog group that keeps tabs on the Park District. Clemente’s gym is used for school programs until 3, and for community recreation after 3:30. Tranter explains, “No one realized that the high school’s teams would want a place to practice after school.”

There are also disputes over who is supposed to police the gym, which has become an easy mark for burglars and vandals. Over the years everything from shower heads to toilet seats has been stolen or destroyed. The Park District no longer replaces most damaged or stolen equipment. “That hole in the wall is where a water cooler used to be,” says Vargas, pointing to a wall near the stairwell. “Someone broke the drinking fountain, so the Park District removed it. That’s what they call ‘fixing’ the water cooler.”

Each side says the break-ins occur while the other side’s on duty. Each side accuses the other of loafing on the job. One thing’s for certain, the gym is poorly managed and in lousy shape. In the middle of a school-day morning, the shower room reeks of marijuana. Gang graffiti scars the wall. A cockroach crawls across a dented locker. “The bugs and insects let us share the place,” says Vargas. “It’s nice of them.”

The batting-cage room in the basement flooded a few years ago when Park District workers accidentally overfilled the pool. “The room was such a mess they condemned it,” says Tomoleoni. “It was closed for seven years; it seemed like they were never going to get it fixed. For batting practice, we hit whiffle balls in the locker room. Then we just moved our stuff back into that room and started using it again.”

Last summer the Park District finally cleaned up the room, installing a new floor and ceiling. Now it’s used for Park District gymnastics, and the Park District won’t let the school use it. Once again, Tomoleoni’s baseball team has no place for winter batting practice.

“It’s a control problem; if we let [the gym teachers] through that room their students will trample our mats,” says Juan Rodriguez, manager of several north- and south-side parks, including Clemente’s gym. “The students have no respect for our equipment.”

Unfortunately the route to Clemente’s only weight-lifting machine is through the gymnastics room. “Closing that room not only takes away our batting cage, but makes it impossible for us to use our weight-lifting equipment,” says Dagostino. “The football team couldn’t work out with weights this year. I don’t think there’s another school in the country that has to put up with that.”

So far the turmoil inside the gym has stirred little–if any–reaction in the community. School principal Sosa would not comment, but Clemente’s gym teachers claim that he’s turned his back on their problems.

“We’ve complained to Sosa, and he tells us that since the gym is Park District property, it’s beyond his control,” says Dagostino. “He told us that we should write letters of protest to the Park District and the school board. Isn’t that something? It’s his school’s gym. The least he could do is write a few letters himself.”

In Sosa’s defense, Clemente has other problems to worry about–gangs, dropouts, and low test scores chief among them.

“I know he [Sosa] has other problems, but he doesn’t realize how a strong athletic program can help a school in a poor community,” says Tomoleoni. “He doesn’t realize that the drop-out rate for kids who participate in sports is a fraction of the school’s total drop-out rate. He doesn’t realize that a winning sports team can bring pride to the students and make them want to stay in school.”

Indeed, Tomoleoni’s baseball team is a model of inner-city athletic excellence. They clear and clean their own ball diamond, pay for traveling expenses with money raised from candy sales, and generally make do with less equipment than any of their out-of-town rivals. Despite these handicaps, they’ve won six city titles. Five recent graduates now play in the minor leagues, and at least a dozen more have gone on to play college ball. And yet they get little respect. The players watched in amazement last year as the Park District installed a play lot in the middle of their baseball field.

“My center fielder has to run over concrete slabs to get an out; he’s lucky he doesn’t break his neck,” says Tomoleoni. “The play lot is great for the elementary school, but lousy for us. We got no input on the deal. Our principal said he didn’t even know it was coming.”

Over the summer, Tomoleoni wrote a letter to Sosa, expressing his team’s “disappointment with the indifference shown by this school, especially the leadership, toward our winning a second straight City Championship and finishing fourth in the state. When I voiced this disappointment to you when we returned from [the state tournament], you responded with ‘Well, then, maybe you don’t want to be the coach anymore.’ How indifferent can you get?!”

Sosa responded to Tomoleoni’s letter by firing the coach as the school’s athletic director, citing “philosophical differences.”

In frustration, Clemente’s gym teachers have initiated a letter-writing campaign, albeit with little success. They wrote 26th Ward Alderman Luis Gutierrez, whose office is two blocks from the school (“I delivered that letter myself,” says Vargas). Gutierrez has not responded. They wrote two letters to James Compton, and one to William Singer, vice president of the Board of Education. They have not responded either, although the acting general superintendent of schools, Charles Almo, responded on Compton’s behalf: “It is my understanding that [a school board lawyer] is in the process of scheduling a meeting with Park District staff to resolve this matter.” Board officials say that meeting has not yet been scheduled.

To his credit, Jesse Madison personally answered a March 1988 letter from Dagostino. But the parks leader devoted most of his letter to a condemnation of rim-wrecking dunks, in effect blaming the teachers for the gym’s condition. “We must be aware that close supervision of all youngsters during school time and after is a must for all staff members,” Madison wrote. “The strict rule of NO DUNKING must be enforced in order to maintain our cost.”

The gym teachers say they would like to see the school system take charge of maintaining the gym, but that doesn’t seem likely. At the moment, most hope for improvement lies in park manager Rodriguez and Kevin Urdow, the Clemente Park supervisor. Both are new on the job; both vow to make changes.

“We had some problems with staff but we’ve taken care of them,” says Rodriguez. “Urdow is dynamite. He’s going to do a job. We have to go in there and take care of business. We’re going to make new batting cages for Tomoleoni. I respect what he’s done for the kids. He’s done so much with few supplies or facilities, God bless him. I want to help him. We’ll revamp his baseball field. We’ll get them access to the weight room through another door. We’re gonna clean that place up–just you wait.”

They’ve ordered the parts needed to repair the broken basketball backboards, says Rodriguez. They’ve also asked for a new water pump. With any luck, the gym will have hot water in its showers by Christmas.

“I don’t want to sound negative; these new guys do sound sincere, but we’ve heard that kind of talk before,” says Tomoleoni. “You get a lot of satisfaction when you win a city title because you know you’ve overcome a lot. But then you turn around and have to beg people to fix the showers so the kids can take a hot shower. It’s ridiculous. It’s like they want you and the kids to fail.”

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