Chicago Tonight In Your Neighborhood: Plan for New School on Near South Side Runs Into Opposition

A new high school is slated to be built at 24th and State streets, with the recent blessing of the Chicago Board of Education

It was a tight 4-3 vote, an indication of how controversial the plan is considering that residents of Chinatown, the South Loop and surrounding communities have been asking for a new school for decades.

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Mayor Lori Lighfoot’s all in to give it to them. But now that there’s political momentum, and some $60 million ready for the project, some of those very same advocates are skeptical, Grace Chan McKibben among them.

Chan McKibben, head of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, said Chinatown currently has elementary schools, but no open enrollment public high school.

Interactive map: More from our community reporting series

She said some students spend two hours commuting elsewhere, and they should have a neighborhood school — one with programming designed to meet their needs.

“What we are trying to do when we establish the school, if we design it correctly, it will be a school serving diverse students, Asians, Black, Latinx, and White” Chan McKibben said. “But the focus will be on bilingual education, both for Chinese and Spanish, and also that there will be services for immigrants.”

Her main problem is where Chicago Public Schools is proposing to build this $120 million new high school.

The proposed site is home to the former Harold Ickes Homes, which were razed in 2009.

Chan McKibben said her community is standing in solidarity with housing advocates, who don’t want acres used for a school that could be used for public housing.

At a virtual 3rd Ward Town Hall Tuesday night, organized by Ald. Pat Dowell, the Chicago Housing Authority said this summer they met with local advisory councils for nearby CHA developments.

“The president of the CAC is on our board, two residents … they voted for this with the requirement that we make sure all 244 units go back on the original Ickes site,” said Ann McKenzie, chief development officer of CHA.

As in, 244 CHA housing units for residents displaced when Ickes was demolished.

Critics say the CHA has fallen behind on promises before and they fear that will happen again.

The housing issue is far from the only point of contention, as some of Lightfoot’s opponents, like Ja’Mal Green, are seizing on.

Green, a candidate for mayor, said it makes no sense to build a brand new school when his alma mater is at 30% capacity.

“It’s a ghost town in Wendell Phillips High School,” Green said. “What we need to do is make sure that they have bilingual programs, bilingual educators because that’s how we actually foster an environment where multiple ethinc groups can come and enter school buildings and learn together.”

The Sun-Times reported that CPS leaders privately worried that a new high school on the Near South Side would hurt students at the existing local schools.

Like Wendell Phillips, Chicago’s first Black high school, its rival Dunbar and other schools in the area that serve primarily Black families.

Green believes that instead of building a new school, that money should be used so that residents will want to send their children to these schools.

“What usually happens is they build this shiny new school and say, ‘Hey this is the school that everyone should go to. This is the school that has a long waiting list because all the parents want to send their kids to,’” Green said. “That undermines these schools like Wendell Phillips and Dunbar and then they say their attendance levels are low and then they shut them down … We have these massive buildings that can filt twelve, thirteen-hundred kids right next to their neighborhood.”

CPS officials said they’re in conversations with school principals and student families, and that they will work to make sure all students have opportunities and a quality education.

“There’s a lot of distrust with people getting let down before,” said Chuck Swirsky, senior advisor for Chicago Public Schools. “This isn’t an ‘or,’ this is an ‘and.’ We can build a new school and develop the other schools as well and we are going to do that. Don’t just listen to my words, it’s going to be done in actions too.”

Dowelll, whose ward would host the new school, said she has and will advocate for more investment at Phillips, Dunbar and others, but it’s high time for a Near South high school.

“The population growth in South Loop, parts of Douglas, Chinatown, has been explosive, and we need to support a school that would bring diverse learning experiences and different cultures together in one location,” Dowell said. “I’m in full support of this idea.”

With the CHA, CPS, the mayor, local alderwoman are all on board, it seems like all systems are a go, but not quite.

State Rep. Theresa Mah, who secured $50 million in state taxpayer money for a new school, said she’ll block that funding. She said she feels like a political pawn for Lightfoot’s campaign and believes the issue lacks community conversation.

Transformation of Motor Row

Located a few blocks from the proposed school site, Chicago’s historic Motor Row recently underwent an $11 million dollar transformation on South Michigan Avenue near Cermak.

Motor Row used to house large car dealerships, given its proximity to McCormick Place.

“We are not in Detroit,” said Ernie Wong, board member and former president of the Near South Planning Board. “Motor Row is Chicago’s version of the auto sales area. Back in the 1920’s Motor Row was really the place to go if you wanted to buy an automobile. You would come here and these were all showrooms. They’re just well-built buildings that used to house auto-mobiles.”

Video: Watch out full interview with Ernie Wong.  

Community groups like the Near South Planning Board helped lead the large transformation project along with the city, and are currently working to make new use out of the area.

“From everything like residential use, bars, entertainment … The idea of Motor Row is to become more of an entertainment district within the city of Chicago. The connection to McCormick is really important and exciting … the Chicago Department of Transportation made an effort to reconfigure not only the roadway, but the width of the sidewalks making it much more pedestrian friendly so people can come here and enjoy themselves … the hope is this spurs more development coming to Motor Row,” Wong said. 

Wong is also a landscape architect and founder of Site Design Group, which has done projects like Chinatown’s Ping Tom Memorial Park.

Following growth and activity on the Near South Side, Tyler Davis, owner of Duneyrr Artisan Fermenta Project and Moderne Dune, opened a hybrid wine-beer brewery last October. His business replaced the former Motor Row Brewery that closed during the pandemic.  

“The growth that’s coming down here on the Near South Side … out of all the areas that have been known to have breweries and establishments like this, South Loop hasn’t really been hit yet. People are very appreciative so far,” Davis said.

Video: Watch our full interview with Tyler Davis.

Davis’ take is a new and innovative one, honing in on the hybrid fermentation of beer and wine.

“It’s not just putting wine into beer as a blend,” he added. “It’s actually a process where the wine is being fermented at the same time the beer is. It’s an actual hybrid and you get nuances of each coming from the craft beer, natural wine world where when you drink the hybrid, it’s basically as dry as a wine, has a big fruit floral flavor, but then the hops and malt accent the characteristics of the wine even further. It’s a complete hybrid in every way.”

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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