AUSTIN — A city plan to establish a new Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago on the grounds of a much-maligned police and fire training facility is moving forward.
The City Council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate unanimously approved the proposal to build an $8 million youth development center in the 4400 block of West Chicago Avenue during a Wednesday meeting.
If approved by the full City Council, the 18,000-square-foot facility would be the first new Boys & Girls Club in decades. The club would have sports, recreation, academic assistance, wellness and leadership development programs on the same site as the $95 million Joint Public Safety Training Academy under development.
The city will lease about half an acre of land on the training academy’s campus to the Boys & Girls Club for $1 annually for at least 55 years.
“We are convinced this new club represents a transformational opportunity for young people in Chicago to promote healing and build bridges where few currently exist,” Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago President and CEO Mimi LeClair said.
While residents and local leaders commended the plan for bringing much-needed recreation and after-school programs to the West Side, many balked at the idea of having a youth center next door to a police training facility many young people and residents fought to block when it was proposed in 2017.
Youth organizers for the #NoCopAcademy campaign criticized the training facility as a misuse of public funds, saying it added to an overinflated police budget while neglecting schools, mental health centers and other social services that address the root causes of crime.
“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?” said Destiny Harris, an organizer for the campaign.
Organizers launched a petition signed by more than 500 people asking for the Boys & Girls Club to to choose a different West Side location for the project. In an open letter to LeClair, #NoCopAcademy organizers said, “Black and Brown youth are being used as props” in a “PR strategy to ease those rising tensions between the general public and police.”
“It seems like an attempt by the mayor to make this project more palatable to the residents of the West Side,” Harris said.
Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) praised the Boys & Girls Club for investing on the West Side and ultimately voted in favor of the project, but questioned if young people at the center would be negatively impacted by the police presence.
“I also know … from the experience of some of our youth that sometimes our officers… they may not view young Black and Brown Chicagoans the way they deserve. There are times where… our young people of color are viewed as threats when they’re not doing anything wrong, they’re just living their lives,” La Spata said.
LeClair said the site was the most practical place to build a center since it was affordable and allowed the nonprofit to customize the facility to offer the programs most requested by youths. The nonprofit conducted 12 focus groups with local Boys & Girls Club participants, youths who weren’t involved in the programs and students at the nearby schools to gauge whether the community would welcome a club at that site, LeClair said.
Youth outreach efforts will guide the design of the facility and programs, LeClair said. Community feedback will ensure the club’s offerings will be uniquely suited for the interests and needs of the community, LeClair said.
“We consider what the youth need. We never take any steps that would make them feel uncomfortable,” LeClair said.
The club would be a critical investment on the West Side and help the area recover from years of neglect, resident Margaret Gardener said.
“There’s never been more of an urgent need for quality after-school and summer programming for our at-risk youth. …So much of the trauma our youth are facing is the result of our society’s historic and systemic racism and injustice directed at people of color. This has produced generations of disinvestment and neglect,” Gardener said.
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