According to a news article from DNAinfo Chicago, the City of Chicago recently announced plans to build a new selective enrollment high school on the Near North Side named after President Barack Obama. On the surface, it seems like a great idea. The city is struggling to educate its children and it is in dire need of more spaces at selective enrollment high schools to ease the demand that is on the system. And what better person to name this new school after than Barack Obama? Why complain?
Well, the location for the new high school also happens to be in the middle of a park. Stanton Park straddles the border of the Near North Side and Lincoln Park and provides some of the limited public green space available in the area. Although it looks ‘green’ from above using Google Maps, much of this is actually grass in empty lots. With the exception of the attractive, but small Seward Park at the corner of Division and Orleans, it’s more than a mile to any of the large parks in the area (Lincoln Park to the northeast, and Eckhart and Pulaski parks to the west). The park also doubles as the play area and athletic fields for Skinner North Classical School, which is at the south end of the park. The new high school would be build in park land just north of the elementary school.
This choice of locations is utterly ridiculous and if anything shows the ineptitude with which the current mayoral administration is handling education policy and planning Chicago. Although they got it right that the city needs more high quality schools, they not only chose to take away already precious park space, they’re doing it in an area where there is ample space to build. There are not just numerous empty lots in the area, there is a giant lot ready for development along Division adjacent to where the city’s newest Target was just completed and there is a lot about a block north of Stanton Park along Clybourn that as far as I can tell from Google Maps is also empty and ready for redevelopment. According to comments from DNAinfo, the old high school building along this block on the north side of Clybourn is empty.
What’s even more baffling is this proposal to use park space comes barely days after the City of Chicago and Chicago Transit Authority announced they will be looking to acquire private land for a number of infrastructure projects, none of which look to consume park land, including an extension and improvements to Wentworth in Chinatown and the construction of an ‘L’ flyover where the Brown Line meets the Purple-Red Line. If it is possible to acquire private land that is already developed in these areas, how is it not possible to acquire undeveloped private land for a new high school?
Why then, must we build in park land rather than take advantage of empty space already available to expand park land and educational opportunities? The great things about public schools is the green spaces that often adjoin them double as space for students and the community. Look at Lane Tech on the North Side, the huge lawns are constantly being used by students to lounge and play sports after school and offer ample room for frisbee or soccer games on the weekend. It makes much more sense to build a new high school along Division Street or Clybourn as a means to increase green space rather than build over it.
Building along Division Street helps to increase student mobility. A CTA bus stop at that corner gives students direct access to the Nr. 8 Halsted and Nr. 70 Division bus routes, which brings three CTA ‘L’ stops on two lines within 10 minutes by bus and two additional ‘L’ stops on three lines within 15-20 minutes by bus. The Stanton Park site does not connect students to the CTA directly while simultaneously removing green space.
The ultimate irony of this is that Michelle Obama is an advocate of healthy living. It seems odd that in an effort to expand educational opportunities we’d systematically remove green space and opportunities to play outside and be active. None of this seems in line with the Obamas’ pasts as community activists.