The Crusader Newspaper Group

Majority of CPS schools shuttered in 2013 are still vacant

By Zavi Kang Engles,

At the intersection of Ashland and Foster in Andersonville sits a striking art deco building spanning an entire city block. There’s no signage out front, save for “You are beautiful”—a recent public-art installation—spelled out on the marquee outside the main entrance. This building, once home to Trumbull Elementary School, was sold last September to Svigos Asset Management, a private developer, for $5.25 million, according to Chicago Public Schools. Trumbull was one of nearly 50 schools the district closed in 2013, and its sale price is the highest price the district has fetched for any of the shuttered buildings. Building plans include residential units, a community arts space, and a theater in what used to be the school auditorium.

“The sale of Trumbull shows that when communities rally around a vision and the private and public sector work together, we can repurpose facilities, revitalize neighborhoods and bring much-needed additional revenue to the District,” CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said in a statement at the time of the sale.

But near the opposite end of the city, in Englewood, another former CPS school has met an entirely different fate. Unlike Trumbull, which was considered one of then-head CPS architect Dwight H. Perkins’s most successful buildings, Bontemps Elementary is modest in size and utilitarian in design. Neglected and vacant for more than three years now, the building has been overtaken by vines, and plywood boards seal off every ground-floor entrance. Litter and rusted gates complete the picture of a blighted former school site.

“Bontemps is a shell that has been completely vandalized,” says Asiaha Butler, president of Resident Association of Greater Englewood. It’s “just horrific on the inside.”

Butler and other Englewood residents have been organizing for years to try to repurpose this derelict site. The building is located at the end of a proposed elevated parkway similar to the 606/Bloomingdale Trail, tentatively called the Englewood Line, and Butler and other activists have been working to incorporate the building into the trail plan.

“Our last conversation was with a potential tenant that would be interested in some kind of housing development, like maybe for people who work on the [Englewood] Line or do urban agriculture around the line could actually live in the space as well, and it’d be open to the community as an urban agriculture hub,” Butler says.

But with the building’s power transformers gutted and, according to Chicago Police Department incident reports obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, multiple burglaries that have stripped the building of wiring, pipes, and other necessary building parts, the prospects of repurposing Bontemps as an innovative center for urban agriculture seems daunting at best.

CPS’s decision to close 50 public schools in 2013—despite protests from parents, students, teachers, and community organizations—made national news, with many calling it the largest mass school closing in the nation’s history. District officials vowed to repurpose the buildings to benefit affected communities, the majority of which are communities of color.

In March 2015, Catalyst Chicago reported on the messy, protracted progress CPS had made in repurposing these closed schools. Its findings were grim: property crimes had gone up on campuses of former schools and, despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s advisory committee’s suggestion that CPS create an evaluation committee to assess the conditions of each building, no such committee had been formed.

Now, three years after the closings—and despite CPS’s pledged commitment to prioritizing the needs of the affected communities—the majority of these shuttered former school buildings remain vacant and unutilized. And while architecturally significant and well-preserved schools on the north side have been snapped up by developers for millions of dollars, the majority of the vacant schools are unevenly distributed on the west and south sides, languishing and vulnerable to burglaries and other crimes. Additionally, many community members have criticized the repurposing process as opaque, confusing, and lacking in sufficient accountability.


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