Critics of the $95 million police and fire training academy slated to be built in West Garfield Park have called it a symbol of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s misplaced spending priorities.
Now, the sprawling campus on the 4400 block of West Chicago Avenue may become a symbol of something more positive and potentially transformational: the first new Boys & Girls Club to be built in Chicago in a generation.
The City Council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate made certain of it on Wednesday, agreeing to lease 20,000 square feet of land on the 34-acre-campus to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago at $1 a year for up to 75 years.
That will pave the way for an $8 million, 18,000 square foot youth development center with an open-air plaza between the club and the training academy.
“This new club represents a transformational opportunity for young people in Chicago to promote healing and build bridges where few currently exist. To break down barriers that have stood in the way of dialogue and understanding,” Mimi LeClair, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago, told aldermen.
Ald. James Cappleman (46th) called the project a quadruple-win — for young people, their parents, the Austin and West Humboldt Park communities and Chicago police officers.
“It’s not just the youth seeing police in a different way. It allows police officers to see youth in a different way,” Cappleman said.
Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) added: “If we’re focusing on rebuilding trust, you can’t do it when you’re separated from each other. It has to be together. We have to learn how to co-exist. What better way to do that than when you have an academy full of young police ... alongside those trying to do something positive with their lives?”
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) applauded local Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) for, as he put it, “doing what’s right — not what’s popular.”
Before agreeing to bankroll the new facility, the Boys & Girls Clubs held a dozen focus groups with local youth, including students at Orr Community Academy.
The reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
“They said, ‘We deserve a safe space. We deserve a beautiful space. And we will feel safe knowing that we’re on this particular campus,’” LeClair said Wednesday.
“They would say things like, ‘What we have now isn’t working and, maybe, this is a wonderful opportunity to, at the grass-roots level, have joint programming with the first responders training. We could listen to what they have to say and they could listen to what we have to say.’”
Even so, Ald. Daniel LaSpata (1st) voiced concern about the “potential for inter-action” between police and disconnected youth with, as he put it, “a troubled past” or a “troubled present.”
“I also know from some public comments from police leadership and from the experience of some of our youth that, sometimes, our officers — I’m trying to find the delicate way of saying this — they may not view young Black and Brown Chicagoans the way they deserve,” LaSpata said.
“There are times when our young people — particularly our young people of color — are viewed as threats when they’re not really doing anything wrong. They’re just living their lives.”
LeClair assured LaSpata there would be “no forced interactions” between young people and police.
“If there are one or two young people who are interested in this, we will work with them to pursue that. If there are more than that, we will work with them. But they set the tone. We are first and foremost about what … will make them feel emotionally, physically and psychologically safe,” she said.
For years, the training academy has drawn opposition from Chance the Rapper, college students in Chicago and across the nation and local youth organized online under the #NoCopAcademy banner.
During countless protests, they argued the money would be better spent on mental health initiative, as well as on recreational and education programs for young people.
When Lightfoot announced the decision to build the new Boys & Girls Club on the academy campus, the #NoCopAcademy movement called it a “slap in the face” to Black youth.
Destiny Harris, a youth organizer for the #NoCopAcademy campaign, said a Boys & Girls Club of Chicago is a “beautiful thing.” But, not on the site of the police academy that young people fought so hard to stop.
“This is strictly a P.R. move. It’s the mayor trying to make this project more palatable so that, when youth of NoCopAcademy are like, `No, we don’t want this cop academy. This isn’t the best use of $95 million,’ that we actually look like the bad people,” Harris said then.
“Then it becomes, we don’t want a cop academy and a Boys & Girls Club, which is actually a really beautiful resource. … We still would like it. Just in another place. … Police officers don’t make Black children feel safe. … How can you expect Black and Brown children to come into this space and feel comfortable?”