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Vacancies to Fill

Considering desire in the past and future of Chicago’s vacant schools.

Illustration: Donte Neal

The late afternoon light coming west on 51st Street lends a gilded edge to the leaves scattered along the sidewalk, reminding me that we are approaching the time photographers refer to as the “golden hour” — when the sun sits in a way that makes even the most unadorned landscapes appear a little bit special, a little bit magical. Everything glows. In this light, the marquee sign posted in front of Crispus Attucks Community Academy seems fitting: “EVERY CHILD IS A PROMISE,” it reads in bold, black capital letters. “EVERY CHILD IS A STAR.” The day is unseasonably warm for autumn in Chicago, and it’s around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, when one might expect to see parents and children coming and going for after school activities. But the windows are all obscured — some with blinds, others with what looks like taped-up white butcher paper or tarp. A flagpole stands at attention in front of the door, bereft of a flag.

The opposite side of the marquee reads “CONGRATULATIONS 2015” and below that “LOVE ALL.” And on the southwest face of the building, just above the stone marking the date the building was constructed — 1960 — is a large sign reading “For Sale” in white and emerald green, with the names and contact information for a realtor. The building is vacant. The For Sale sign is bolted into the brick, but peeking out from underneath it is the gray cement surface of another sign. That sign identifies the building as John Farren Public School.

Taken together, these signifiers seem to tell conflicting stories. Is this Crispus Attucks Community Academy? Is it John Farren Public School? Or is it a vacant building? The somewhat paradoxical answer, of course, is that it is all three. And the present state of the building — a vacant structure abutted on two corners by vacant lots — gestures toward a distressing past, one marked by segregation and rapid change in Chicago, a city marked by one of the most disturbingly racist histories in America.

Spaces of Possibility

In 2013, parents, teachers, students, and community members across the city of Chicago received some shocking news. Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the third-largest district in the country, was planning on closing 50 schools at the end of the academic. The stated reason was that the school buildings were “underutilized” — they had been constructed to serve far more children than were now enrolled. The city has experienced tremendous depopulation associated with decreased migration, political woes, violence and safety concerns, and the demolition of public housing. District officials claimed that by closing and repurposing the schools, they could save millions of dollars, no small feat given CPS’s budget deficit of over a billion dollars. Critics said that such estimates were flawed, and, perhaps more importantly, that school closures would disrupt to the lives of thousands of children. But despite vehement protests and recommendations from independent judges tasked with reviewing the proposed closures that several of the schools remain open, the closings proceeded. Almost 11,000 students, 88 percent of them Black, were reassigned to attend another school, deemed a “welcoming” school by the district even though in many cases there were tensions and even hostilities between the old school and the new.

And what would become of the vacant schools? Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed an Advisory Committee for School Repurposing and Community Development, charged with devising a process and set of standards for determining the future of the buildings. They were to be sold on the private market to anyone who wanted them — if they could meet a set of basic criteria, including demonstrated experience in implementing similar projects, and demonstrated support from the community surrounding the building. Further, any proposals to repurpose an empty building should offer a benefit to the community, “such as employment opportunities, health care, housing, access to fresh produce, etc.” The committee went so far as to name potential re-uses that had already been discussed by unspecified “interested parties,” including urban farming, tutoring and mentoring, affordable housing, a health clinic, or a community arts center. Given that the closed schools are situated almost exclusively in economically depressed areas, any of these re-uses could be of potentially tremendous benefit to Chicagoans in need.

But in order for these possibilities to come to fruition, someone would actually have to buy the buildings.

Persistent Vacancies

As of this writing, only 5 of the 43 available buildings have been successfully repurposed. Buyers with the adequate capital to purchase and repurpose a building are, it seems, not interested in investing in the communities where the vacant schools are located. And with maintenance costs averaging from $100,000 to $300,000 a year, the buildings may be out of reach for the kind of community-facing organizations described by the Advisory Committee.

This challenge should not come as a surprise. In 2011, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report analyzing the process and outcomes of school closures in six urban centers in an effort to provide guidance to the city of Philadelphia, which is considering its own potential school closures. The authors of the report highlighted the difficulties of selling vacant schools as a major finding, noting that “a lot of closed school buildings are tough sells, even in the best of times,” and “districts have struggled to balance community desires with market realities.” The buildings are almost all located in Black communities, and the average per capita income in the community areas surrounding the vacant buildings is $16,650, with an average unemployment rate of 23.8% — about 1.8 times the city average.

Socioeconomic Characteristics of Communities Housing Vacant Schools.

a) Building vacant as of June 2017 (Belsha & Kiefer, 2017).
b) Based on 2008–2012 Census data (City of Chicago, 2011).
c) Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, 2016

But years have passed, and as the vacant buildings remain unsold, they have become an additional tax on communities that are already vulnerable. Residents have complained, filed police reports, and captured footage in response to vandalism, stolen copper pipes and wiring, broken windows, stolen fixtures, and pipes that have burst in response to brutal winters. Such physical distress makes it hard to imagine them as a fruitful spaces for potential real estate investment, and adds blight to landscapes that in many cases are already beset with vacant lots and boarded-up homes.

Who could want such buildings? The challenge of selling the schools reveals something fascinating, and perhaps also saddening, about the nature of desire when it comes to urban landscapes, and how we might understand desire in relation to something like market value. In a sense, the empty buildings hold two distinct levels of value, which are wildly disparate: their [low] value in a private market largely dominated by hegemonic streams of capital and investment, and their [high] value in the eyes of the communities that surround them — communities that have imbued the buildings with tremendous symbolic value as vessels of tradition and memory, as well as practical value as potential venues for desperately-needed resources. The notion of a building in an urban space as desirable or not, and the consideration of whose desires we mean, thus becomes a contested question.

Behind the Boarded-Up Windows

On the Near West Side, about 8 miles northeast of Attucks, father of two Demetrius Amparan walks with me around what was once King Elementary. Plywood, looking darkened and worn by the harsh Chicago weather, blocks the doors and the windows. “The school was so ingrained in the community,” Amparan tells me. We continue down the block. “The old houses, these people have been there for 50 years. You talk to some of them, and they’re in denial about what was going on around them. When the schools were closing, it was a shock. They were like, ‘damn, we didn’t think this could actually happen! No one finna come on our block!’ …The parents were freaking out.”

This formulation, of the block as our block and the specter of outsiders invading to commandeer homes or schools, makes a certain kind of sense given the history of the area surrounding King Elementary. The school is neighbored on the north by the Eisenhower Expressway, on the northeast by the United Center (the largest indoor sports arena in the United States) and on the east by the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. Each of these developments, in its time, has played a role in threatening Near West Side residents with displacement. The Eisenhower, known locally as the “Ike,” displaced 13,000 people and 400 businesses by the time it was completed in 1961. Throughout the 1960s, government agencies purchased 238 acres of land in the area, of which then-mayor Richard J. Daley secretly committed 100 acres to the construction of the university, while publicly denying any such plans.

“This is an area that has really been battered by waves of redevelopment. And it was the historic gateway to a thriving African-American neighborhood. Mostly working class, but along Madison Street you had a lot of independently owned stores,” said Rachel Weber of the Great Cities Institute in a 2011 interview. Now, the neighborhood is just one-third Black, making it an outlier among the areas that are home to vacant schools.

As countless scholars and activists have documented, racism and segregation have cemented years of compounded immobility, neglect and disadvantage onto Chicago’s Black neighborhoods, and maintained fierce social boundaries between those neighborhoods and the areas surrounding them. As early as 1930, Black people in Chicago “led the way” in spatial isolation among American cities, hemmed into specific regions of the city by redlining and threats of physical violence against those who dared venture beyond their prescribed borders.

Realtors also took advantage of the fact that banks would refuse to provide mortgages to would-be Black homeowners by offering loans with extremely high down payments and interest rates, taking a cash advance, encouraging families to buy homes beyond their means, then evicting them summarily when they were unable to pay. And long after restrictive covenants were struck down by the court in 1948, realtors continued to use various methods to keep from selling to Black people looking to move into white neighborhoods; one study using surveys and interviews with realtors identified 26 different methods realtors used, including flat-out refusing to show a property or lying and saying it was no longer available. By 1970, the dissimilarity index (the proportion of people who would have to move in order to achieve desegregation in an area) in Chicago was 91.9, the highest among America’s 30 metropolitan areas with the highest Black populations.

And while many would consider redlining and restrictive covenants to be relics of a forgotten past, housing discrimination against Black Chicagoans has persisted into eras which we might like to consider more “civilized.” Studies in the 1980s found that Black homebuyers were less likely than white homebuyers to be shown available homes, and that they were offered financial information at half the rate of white homebuyers. Today, more insidious forms of housing discrimination exist, such as the widespread practice of landlords illegally refusing to accept housing assistance vouchers as a form of rental payment. This contributes to the trend of Black residents remaining clustered in highly-segregated neighborhoods, regardless of their income; even when accounting for socioeconomic status, Black families live in neighborhoods with the highest prevalence of violence and the lowest income levels, and tend to remain in such neighborhoods over intergenerational periods. Sociologist Patrick Sharkey refers to this pattern as the inherited ghetto: “the neighborhood environment structures the experiences and opportunities of children in ways that alter their trajectories, with consequences that persist over the individual life course and across generations.”

Despite these histories, one might think that the vacant school buildings would be desirable on the private market for other reasons. They are spacious, many are situated close to parks or busy thoroughfares, and many are architecturally impressive. However, there is evidence that when it comes to Black communities, such considerations are immaterial. In a study tracing gentrification in Chicago neighborhoods over time, researchers found that Black and Latinx neighborhoods were less likely to gentrify — and that after the concentration of Black residents in a neighborhood passed a certain threshold, the likelihood of gentrification dropped off sharply. When the proportion of Black residents in the population of a certain area surpassed about 40 percent, it seems that “residents, developers, and institutions may make neighborhood selection decisions using neighborhood stereotyping based simply on a neighborhood having a relatively high proportion of blacks, believing they have sufficient ‘evidence’ to make judgments about the neighborhood,” the authors explain.

In other words, it should come as no surprise that these school buildings would remain vacant so long after entering the private market. They are situated in neighborhoods that have long been marked by segregation and disinvestment, neighborhoods that constantly receive the message we do not want you — marked with a scarlet letter of antiblack racism that makes them persistently unappealing to many would-be investors.

Visions of the Possible

Nevertheless, for many of the residents who share space with these schools, they are sites of intense desire, imbued in equal parts with the bonds of history and the promise of possibility. Consider King Elementary, for instance. Amparan, who taught a poetry program in the school for a time, gets a faraway look when he talks about it, one that belies the current desolate state of the building. “It was one of the prettiest elementary schools I have ever seen,” he says. “King is beautiful. The murals were so beautiful…. The principal was so nice, everything was so great, and they had so much pride in their school.” When he muses about what the building could become in its post-closure life, Amparan takes on another dreamlike look. “It could be a community haven,” he says, “maybe with workshops to teach kids and parents about things like healthy eating, or job training. All the things communities of color are deprived of could be run through there.”

While longtime activist Valerie Leonard of the North Lawndale community on the West Side shares Amparan’s vision of the vacant school buildings serving the community, she still mourns the loss of the schools themselves. “They were built to be schools,” she says. “I would love for one of those schools to be open as a high quality public school. But I know that that won’t happen. The politics of that just won’t work. So in the absence of that, I would like to see a community center… something that would serve multiple buildings for arts and cultural activities, and provide a safe space. Having cultural activities, educational enrichment activities, athletic activities… some health facilities as well. We’ve got a dearth of access to health care. I would like to see those type of activities under one roof.”

The amenities Leonard dreams of would go to good use in North Lawndale. A half-century ago, Martin Luther King made the West Side community a physical and symbolic headquarters for what would be called the Chicago Freedom Movement. “In the South,” said King, “we always had segregationists to help make issues clear… This ghetto Negro [in Northern cities] has been invisible so long and has become visible through violence.” King moved himself and his family into a North Lawndale apartment with a broken refrigerator and the persistent smell of urine, for which he paid $90 a month, and he worked with local activists to clean and renovate a nearby building that housed a family living with rats and no heat. While this tradition of community activism continues in the North Lawndale of today, the neighborhood faces many struggles. The neighborhood has a per capita income of about $12,000, and one in five North Lawndale residents is unemployed. 30 percent of North Lawndale residents have no high school diploma, and the area has one of the highest incidences of violent crime in the city.

Leonard, whose parents were both public school teachers, has seen North Lawndale’s history unfold firsthand. “Growing up, I felt like the school communities were part of our families,” she says. “We had great schools right in north Lawndale. And to see where children are now compared to where we were then hurts my heart.” In Leonard’s view, the set of recommendations the mayor’s committee prepared for repurposing schools is a “beautiful document,” one that would serve as a helpful guide in making sure the vacant buildings found appropriate new uses — if it were adhered to. Leonard has found the repurposing process “disappointing,” and places blame in the city’s history of valuing patronage and nepotism over transparency and democracy. “It’s the Chicago Way,” she says. “It’s the way it’s always been done.… And we are a low capacity, low-income community. But people like to feel like they’re part of the process.” Instead, says Leonard, North Lawndale residents have the sense that decisions are being made behind closed doors, without their input being heard.

Another North Lawndale resident, engineer Frank Bergh, is still relatively new to Chicago. Bergh, one of the 2 percent of North Lawndale residents who are white, moved to the community in 2012 because of an interest in the neighborhood’s role in fair housing struggles. But he has been here long enough that, like Leonard, he has come to see the management of the school closures as more than carelessness, but as a symptom of a deeper corruption. Bergh’s back door looks out onto Pope Elementary. Nearby are the Albany Park townhomes — the only gated community in North Lawndale, where Alderman Michael Scott, Jr. lives. “This entire block is nothing but a closed school and a gated community next to Douglas Park,” Bergh says. “Which, to me, is like… that’s why you closed the school.” Bergh believes that the closure was part of a broader plan to displace low-income Black residents from the neighborhood and develop it as a hub for new housing and activities directed primarily at white people — activities like Riot Fest, the punk rock music festival that moved to Douglas Park in 2015 and brought mostly-white concertgoers who residents said “turned their noses up” at North Lawndale.

One day, Bergh was riding his bicycle by Pope and was amazed to see something new and unfamiliar: a bevy of children chattering as they lined up to enter the building, and signs touting course subjects like chemistry and ethics. He was thrilled, thinking that perhaps the school building had been re-engaged for some sort of educational program — until he realized it was all a façade. The building was being contracted for the day to shoot a school scene in an episode of a television show. It felt like a cruel joke.

“I’ve fantasized about cutting the lock [on the fence] and installing some basketball hoops,” he laughs. “I often ask myself, what if? What would it be like to see children coming and going here? To see school buses lined up every day? The block can feel very desolate.” He refers to these feelings of sadness and frustration as the real “carnage of closed schools” — the consternation of seeing a potential community hub unused in a community that truly needs it.

The Cost of Dreams

For generations, schools and school buildings have held tremendous symbolic value that transcends their ostensible purpose. Schools are community centers, markers of identity, pathways to participation in the project of democracy. In schools, we vote, we cheer on our team, we shelter from tornadoes and hurricanes. And in this era of their lives, the buildings that once served as schools all over Chicago’s South and West Sides are at once sites of foreclosure and infinite possibility. With their primary function stripped away, in the absence of a clear purpose, the buildings have arguably the most promise that they have ever had. As Amparan frames it, there is imaginative space for “all the things” to take up residence. In this way, the vacant buildings represent at once a manifestation of everything wrong with the schools and the city — “the Chicago Way,” as Leonard notes — and vessels for community desire. They are catalysts for community members to reflect on all the years of malfeasance, and all the resources worth dreaming of.

However, the very people for whom the schools have the most value are also the people for whom the material capital to invest is least likely to manifest. As schools, King and Pope had annual maintenance costs of $234,233 and $277,500, respectively. Potential buyers would need to be able to not only establish a winning bid for the cost of the building itself, but have some assurance that they would be able to maintain the building in addition to programming costs for whatever its re-use might be. Furthermore, the buildings require various degrees of renovation to even make them habitable after four years sitting, unused, through heat waves and blizzards, as well as theft of major appliances, pipes, and wiring.

Now that CPS has opened the building bidding process to nationwide investors, Alderman Chris Taliaferro, a city legislator whose ward includes the Austin neighborhood, is worried that community organizations with a true vision for accountable repurposing will be outbid by out-of-towners who have the capital to buy a building, but not the commitment to community desires — or that local leaders will be able to purchase a building, but unable to keep it up. “It would be great for people within the community to be able to buy the buildings, but people may not be able to do so because of limited resources,” he says.

Nakisha Hobbs, principal and co-founder of the independent Village Leadership Academy, has experienced this challenge firsthand. Village Leadership Academy is a social justice-focused school serving Black youth from the South and West Sides, and Hobbs thought there might be a good opportunity to move the school closer to where most of her students live. Hobbs herself grew up in Austin, and now lives in North Lawndale; she says she and her students were “devastated” to see schools in these communities closing and the impact of the closures on Black children. But Hobbs also thought that repurposing one of the buildings as a new home for VLA could be good for both the school and the community. She reached out to the alderman, and then the private company that manages the school bidding process, with the hopes of bidding on the Drake Elementary building on the South Side. But despite the fact that the bidding is supposed to be an open process, Hobbs feels that “it was very evident that there was some behind the scenes dealing” between then-alderman Will Burns and the electricians’ union, which ultimately won the bid for the building. Hobbs says that in doing research for her own bid, a local contractor told her the union already had a deal with the alderman to acquire Drake. “I feel like the whole damn thing is rigged,” Hobbs says. “They had an open meeting, and the co-founder of [VLA] went to that meeting. And at that meeting there were other folks there who know how things work, and they said ‘all these buildings are earmarked for people,’ except for the ones further west.” Like Leonard and Bergh, Hobbs is disillusioned with this way of doing things — the “Chicago Way,” where some people “know how things work” and those people have an inside track into making decisions with people in power while those who are impacted are excluded from the process. “I think there are people that have stronger relationships with the mayor, and he is figuring out ways to get the more prime real estate properties into the hands of those folks.”

Aside from the outcome on the Drake bidding process, Hobbs’s frustration is rooted in a deeper concern about the communities she calls home, and how vacant school buildings are affecting the people who live there. “I was in Austin, driving through my old community, and there is a building right at the corner of Central and Madison. It’s a huge school building [Goldblatt Elementary] that is literally boarded up. And seeing a school building on the corner boarded up moved me to tears. It got me thinking, what kind of message does it send to the children? To the residents of this community? That a space or place that should be open for learning or activities is not even open or available to us anymore. Seeing those empty buildings is just kind of devastating to the psyche of the community.” Hobbs worries that the presence of these buildings is like the physical manifestation of a dream deferred — a daily reminder of all the ways the struggles of Chicago’s poor Black communities can seem insurmountable. “People feel like they have less agency. There are folks who engaged in struggle to keep those buildings open, and they lost. And those are the same communities where there is the most violence…No one is willing to invest in these communities. These are forgotten communities. Forgotten spaces… forgotten people.”

Living in Ruins: Maintaining Space for Desire

As we consider the histories of cities like Chicago, histories mired with racism and inequality, the question of desire is a critical one if we are to retain any hope in the possibility of social transformation. In “Suspending Damage: An Open Letter to Communities,” scholar Eve Tuck calls on us to consider not only the ways in which communities have been “broken and conquered,” but also their desires: “the hope, the visions, the wisdom of lived lives and communities.” Desire, Tuck writes, “is about longing, about a present that is enriched by both the past and the future. It is integral to our humanness.” While it is clear that school closure and the aftermath of vacancies have enacted immense damage on communities, it is also integral that we understand the desire of those who have been harmed — a desire that remains resilient in the face of continued dismissal. In a sense, for residents of these communities, the buildings are not “vacant” at all. Rather, they are endowed with the ghostly recollections of the past, which in turn offer the foundation for a richer future. As I have written elsewhere, such desire transcends the boundaries of linear time; when residents see a closed school, they see it not just as it is — a boarded-up building — but as it was. And they see the buildings as they could be. In this way, to view the buildings is to look across time and space, across harms done and lingering hope for a remedy.

For these citizens, led by their desires, the imaginative possibilities are as endless as the list of transgressions that have come before. In the book Architecture after Revolution, authors Alessandro Petti, Eyal Weizman, and Sandi Hilal consider the ways in which Palestinians engaged in a struggle for resistance and freedom must engage the physical landscape, which is marked with the artifices of the military. Such structures, they write, “are not only the dead matter of past power, but could be thought of as material for re-appropriations and strategic activism within the politics of the present. The question is how people might live with and in ruins.” As Black Chicagoans live with vacant school buildings as a sort of ruin, the very emptiness itself — in other words, a void, a space, an opening — poses an invitation for something new to emerge from the misuses of past power.

Until then, they remain vacant.

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