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Three weeks after Mayor Daley unveiled Renaissance 2010, his plan to create more than 100 new schools in the next six years, city officials acknowledged that they were planning to demolish Riis elementary on the near south side. Daley says he’s scouring the city for sites to house new schools, so maybe one hand doesn’t know what the other’s doing. Or maybe, as many parents and activists have come to suspect, Renaissance 2010 is little more than a public relations gimmick designed to divert attention from school closings and teacher layoffs.
The demolition of Riis, on Loomis just south of Taylor, is part of a larger plan to replace the Chicago Housing Authority’s ABLA complex with Roosevelt Square, a $450 million federally and locally subsidized mixed-income community of town houses, condos, and apartments. Like the CHA redevelopment plans for Cabrini-Green and Robert Taylor, Roosevelt Square is controversial. Residents contend it’s just a new scheme to drive out poor people. “It’s urban renewal–that’s all it is,” says Adourthus McDowell, a member of the local school council at nearby Smyth Elementary who grew up in ABLA. “They let the community fall apart, and then they kick everyone out. It’s an old story.” City officials say the project–bounded roughly by Taylor, 15th Street, Racine, and Ashland–will be a vast improvement. It will look better than ABLA, generate more in property taxes, and seed the gentrification of neighborhoods on the near west and south sides. Besides, over a third of the 2,441 units will be set aside for low-income residents.
City officials have been planning Roosevelt Square for almost a decade, and in 2000 former schools CEO Paul Vallas assured residents he would keep Riis open even though enrollment was falling. He also promised to spruce it up. “They never came right out and said they were thinking of closing it,” says McDowell.
In May 2001 Chicago Public Schools officials told reporters that Riis would close, though they didn’t bother telling the school’s principal, who had to get the news from the papers. The officials said they had to close it because enrollment had fallen below 300. That June it was shuttered.
LR Development Com-pany, which is building Roosevelt Square, toyed with the idea of converting Riis to housing. “Our intention was to keep the school, even though it’s not a building that’s been identified as a landmark building,” says Tom Weeks, LR’s president. “We did a feasibility study and assessed that it was not feasible to save the building by converting it to a residential use.”
At some point after that, school officials decided to demolish Riis. There was no public announcement, much less a hearing. Michael Moran, cofounder of Preservation Chicago, heard about it from Lydialyle Gibson, a reporter for the Chicago Journal. Moran is upset because he thinks the 1915 three-story school, named for turn-of-the-century muckraker and social activist Jacob A. Riis, is architecturally and historically important. “It’s built in the classic Chicago style,” he says. “It has classical highlights, including ornate capitals at the top of brick columns and corbels in the middle of the windows.”
At the moment Riis is dingy and dirty. The asphalt around it is cracked and crumbling, and the playground is overgrown with weeds and strewn with broken glass. The swing sets are rusty, and the jungle gym’s falling apart. But the school building itself, LR officials say, remains structurally sound.
“It was in satisfactory working order up until the time of its closing,” says Moran. “LR’s never mentioned any structural problem with the school as having anything to do with their decision not to reuse it. It was always problems with the layout–they mentioned the wide corridor with masonry-bearing walls that could not be changed and the auditorium with the sloping floor. These things would not keep it from remaining a school. There is no unstable masonry, terra-cotta, stone, or concrete. There are no vertical cracks or diagonal cracks on the exterior walls, which, when present, can suggest uneven settling and possible inner instability. Any residential developer or school rehabber would likely rip out the existing plumbing and electrical system and start fresh, so complaints about the pipes and wires being old are moot.”
Moran says a restored Riis could be an anchor for the community, much as Blaine, Nettelhorst, and other restored schools have been on the north side. “Preservation is about the future–it’s about doing what’s best for future residents of the community as much as it’s about preserving the past,” he says. “Riis is a visual cornerstone of this community. A clear-cutting is unnecessary. If it’s cleaned up and restored it will be a building residents will love.”
Officials might well regret demolishing Riis once Roosevelt Square is completed. The nearby grammar schools–Smyth, Medill, and Jefferson–have space for more students now, but city planners say Roosevelt Square could bring in more than 2,000 new grammar-school students, too many for those schools to absorb. And if a replacement has to be built, it’s not clear where the money would come from, especially given the current $200 million budget shortfall.
According to articles by Gibson, local residents at a February community meeting asked school officials where all the new children would go. The officials promised to convene “a few public meetings to hash out neighborhood needs and local parents’ wishes,” she wrote. “A working group assembled by CPS will study the matter and come back with recommendations by next spring. Then the real work, whatever it’s determined to be, can begin. ‘We understand the link between vital communities and quality schools,’ [CPS spokesman Mike] Vaughn said. ‘We plan to get schools in there as quickly as we can.'” But CPS officials still haven’t held any local meetings or assembled a working group.
As Gibson’s article points out, demolishing the largest school in the area seems an odd way to develop a new community. In the suburbs, officials generally link new development to schools: If there are no schools nearby they build one. In older suburbs, such as Wilmette, officials often mothball a school when the school-age population falls, then reclaim it when enrollment rises.
But Chicago developers and city planners seem to want to avoid the issue, at least when it comes to gentrifying neighborhoods. It’s as though they believe that incoming middle-class home owners aren’t going to send their children to neighborhood schools with lots of low-income students anyway.
In any event, Weeks says his company had no say in whether Riis would stay open. He says the CHA and CPS signed off on the decision to tear it down. CHA officials say demolition was a CPS decision. “We had nothing to do with the decision to demolish Riis,” says Derrick Hill, press secretary for the CHA. “We are not the Board of Education–we don’t run schools. This was an Arne Duncan decision. You need to talk to him.”
Duncan is the schools’ CEO. His chief spokesman, Peter Cunningham, says, “Our population projections don’t require that school.” It’s almost as though Duncan wasn’t listening when Daley made his celebrated Renaissance 2010 speech on June 24, in which he specifically pointed to schools like Riis that had closed because of dropping enrollment as “potential sites for new schools.” He also promised to develop a comprehensive plan with “extensive input from the community” on where these schools would go and how they would be designed. And he concluded by saying that Chicago’s “capacity for creating new schools is limited only by space considerations and our ability to find strong partners.”
Riis seems a perfect fit. It has an auditorium and a gym, which are hard to come by in many communities. It could take students from nearby overcrowded communities such as Pilsen. It could be subdivided into smaller schools–a favorite Daley concept–or converted into a magnet school that would draw students from all over the city.
“There are so many things you could do with that building,” says Moran. “There are so many reasons to save it. The last thing you would do is destroy it.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.