The largest firehouse in Chicago history — and the first new multi-apparatus facility in decades on the Far South Side — opened for service Wednesday despite Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s once-bitter feud with the local alderman.
The $30 million, 27,000-square-foot firehouse at 1024 W. 119th St. that will serve as the new headquarters for Engine Co. 115 is a personal and very emotional triumph for Ald. Carrie Austin (34th).
She has campaigned for a new firehouse for 16 years and feared that Lightfoot’s election might bring that crusade to a dead-end.
After all, Lightfoot dumped Austin as chairman of the City Council’s Budget Committee in retaliation for Austin’s decision to support Toni Preckwinkle in the 2019 mayoral runoff.
Austin was also among those Lightfoot held responsible for being on the stage at the Harold Washington Cultural Center when Congressman Bobby Rush warned during a March 2019 campaign rally for Preckwinkle that the “blood of the next young black man or black woman” killed by police would be on the hands of Lightfoot supporters if the former Police Board president was elected mayor.
On Wednesday, all was forgiven on both sides.
“When our mayor came into office, I was the first one [to start begging], ‘Ma’am, please don’t let my fire station go to waste.’ She did not. She had just as much compassion … for this station to be a reality,” Austin said.
“I knew that when we had our groundbreaking and she came out. The weather wasn’t so favorable to us. It was very cold. But she came and stood with us to make this station a reality.”
Choking back tears, Austin said, “We fought hard for this. … And I’m grateful that it is a reality. Mayor Lightfoot, I cannot thank you enough for the blessing that you’ve given to my community. … Right down the street is the Salvation Army [center]. That was our only safe haven. Now, we have the city of Chicago [creating] a safe haven for the people of this community.”
Austin noted that during her most recent health scare, she was treated by an ambulance from Engine Co. 115.
“The young man said, ‘Alderman, you’re in good hands. When you see somebody that you recognize and you’ve fallen, that means a lot. The same company did their best to save my husband. The same company in 1994 did their best to save Lemuel. And here it is, Lemuel’s widow. You did your best to get me to safety,” Austin said.
Lightfoot offered what she called a “friendly amendment” to Austin’s praise.
“I didn’t give this firehouse to the residents of this ward and these communities. … I ran on a pledge to make sure that I would see the entirety of the whole city. Not just the downtown and the North Side,” the mayor said.
“This community has been neglected for way too long. Residents here pay their taxes, work hard and deserved to benefit from their hard-earned tax dollars like any other resident across our city. So we are here to fulfill the aspirations and the needs of the people in this community. And I am grateful to be a part of it.”
The grand opening came just in time for retiring Fire Commissioner Richard C. Ford II.
His mandatory retirement, at the age of 63, takes effect Friday.
Ford noted the new single-story firehouse includes a radio communications tower that will enhance data and voice communications, greatly reducing dead spots that hampered operations in the past.
“This firehouse is beautiful, state of the art, and what the community from the Far South Side has needed for more than a couple of decades. And more importantly, what it deserves. We’re replacing a combined, 300 years of facilities,” Ford said.
“Because of its location and amenities, this new firehouse will allow a more efficient use of resources for personnel on the South and Southeast Sides. … Our communications are markedly improved because of the equipment being installed. … Nothing can lead to tragedy more than a gap in communication, and this new facility will help enhance communications for both the police and fire departments.”