WEST GARFIELD PARK — A Boys & Girls Club is being built in Chicago for the first time in decades — but it will be at the controversial police and fire academy campus on the West Side, upsetting some young people who are worried it will do more harm than good to Black youth.
An $8 million youth development center at the academy campus will host Boys & Girls Club programs focused on sports, recreation, academic assistance, wellness and leadership development, according to a Mayor’s Office news release. The clubhouse, which will be developed in a building on the campus, 4400-block of W. Chicago Ave., is expected to serve at least 1,000 children and teens each year once it opens in early 2023, said Mimi LeClair, Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago president and CEO.
“We really hope this new club will provide youth in the community a safe space to grow and thrive,” LeClair said. “It’s not just taking care of the physical. It’s social/emotional, too.”
Development of the 18,000-square-foot youth center on the 34-acre campus will be privately funded by the nonprofit’s donors, LeClair said. The land for the center will be leased by the city for $1 per year for 55 years. City Council will have to approve the partnership this summer.
But the site is an old wound for young West Side organizers who fought the development of the $95 million police training center during the #NoCopAcademy campaign.
Youth organizers who led the campaign criticized the training facility as a misuse of public funds, saying it added to an already overinflated police budget while neglecting schools, mental health centers and other social services that address the root causes of crime.
“If police reduced violence and made communities safer, then Chicago would be one of the safest places in the nation because we are one of the most overpoliced,” said No Cop Academy organizer Destiny Harris. “The city of Chicago thinks police are the only resource that Black and Brown youth should have access to.”
The West Side needs more community centers and youth programs, Harris said. But placing the Boys & Girls Club at the police facility seems like a political ploy led by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to “make this project more palatable to the residents of the West Side,” Harris said.
“For how long have people on the West Side of Chicago been mobilizing, been asking for resources, asking for schools to be adequately funded and access to basic necessities like housing? Why is it that the first time the West Side does get an investment, it’s directly correlated with the cop academy?” Harris said.
The youth center would allow police to use children of color to improve their reputation without taking action to address police misconduct, said No Cop Academy organizer Kaleb Autman.
“They just want to make it sound good. And this is the ultimate talking point,” Autman said. “How can the mayor propose this when we just had a 13-year-old killed [by police]?”
The club being at the police training campus may also make Black youth feel unsafe, Harris said.
“You’re alienating the people who need those resources most within West Garfield Park. These are people who actually need these resources. But now that it’s tied in with police … Black youth are not going to feel safe going there,” Harris said.
Harris attended Whitney Young Magnet High School, which is adjacent to the current police training facility at 1300 W. Jackson Blvd.
“They would do mock raids, mock shootouts and and not tell us. We would hear gunshots and the principal would come on the intercom and say, ‘If you hear gunshots, don’t be alarmed,'” Harris said. “It’s just traumatizing.”
The plan has drawn the ire of some aldermen, too. Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) told the Sun-Times the Boys & Girls Club plan is “absolutely an attempt to try and sell something that young Black youth have consistently said they don’t want to see built on the West Side.”
“The NoCopAcademy organizers were demanding a community center, a youth center,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “And this is just a slap in their face to say, `You’re gonna get the youth center, but guess what? It’s also gonna be right next to the swimming pool and shooting range for cops.’ “
The training exercises were one of LeClair’s first concerns when planning for the facility, she said.
“This is being designed in a very different way than the current training center. It’s virtually soundproof,” LeClair said.
The nonprofit decided to build at the Joint Public Safety Campus after hosting listening sessions with Boys & Girls Club participants, youth who weren’t involved in the programs and students at the nearby Orr Academy High School. The site was the most practical place to build a center since it was affordable and allowed the nonprofit to customize the facility to serve the programs requested by youth, LeClair said.
“The young people, the teens, their feedback was very important. We didn’t get any indication that this would be a barrier for them,” she said. “They made it very clear to us that what they were most interested in was having a safe space and a place that was fun and inviting.”
In 2018, then-Police Board President Lightfoot said then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to build a new police and fire training academy in West Garfield Park was “ill-conceived,” according to the Sun-Times.
One month after taking office, Lightfoot changed her tune, saying the new academy was key to improving police training the U.S. Justice Department said was lacking in Chicago
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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