Chicago’s first new Boys & Girls Club in a generation will be built on the campus of the police and fire training academy in West Garfield Park, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Thursday, in a move denounced by critics as a “slap in the face” to Black youth.
“This is just sugar-coating a plan that is due to fail…This whole campus should be a youth center where young people can grow and thrive. Instead, it’s a police academy. The real investment is going to police,” said former mayoral challenger Ja’Mal Green.
The $95 million training academy being built in the 4400-block of W. Chicago Ave. has drawn opposition from Chance the Rapper, college students in Chicago and across the nation and local youth organized under the #NoCopAcademy.
It became a symbol of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s misplaced spending priorities. During countless protests, they argued that the money would be better spent on recreational and education programs for young people along with mental health.
On Thursday, Lightfoot and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago responded to those demands, but in a way that infuriated the #NoCopAcademy movement.
They announced that an 18,000 square-foot youth development center would be built on the 34-acre campus of the police and fire training academy on 20,000 square feet of land that the city will lease to the club for $1-a-year.
The 55-year lease–with the potential for a 20-year extension–will be introduced to the City Council this summer.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) called the decision to co-locate the two projects a “bad move.” In fact, he accused the mayor of “playing political games.”
“This is absolutely an attempt to try and sell something that young Black youth have consistently said they don’t want to see built on the West Side,” said Ramirez-Rosa, dean of the City Council’s Socialist Caucus.
“The NoCopAcademy organizers were demanding a community center, a youth center. And this is just a slap in their face to say, `You’re gonna get the youth center, but guess what? It’s also gonna be right next to the swimming pool and shooting range for cops.’ “
As desperately as Chicago needs youth programming, Ramirez-Rosa predicted that many young people would shun the Boys & Girls Club located on the training campus.
“I worked with many Black youth from the West Side on the NoCopAcademy campaign. One of the things they consistently told me is, `We don’t feel safe around Chicago Police officers,’ ” Ramirez-Rosa said.
“We can look at the shooting of Adam Toledo to know that so many of our young people have reason to be afraid.”
Destiny Harris, a youth organizer for the #NoCopAcademy campaign, said a new 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.
“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?”
In a news release announcing the project, Lightfoot was quoted as saying that Boys & Girls Clubs across the country “provide important opportunities for young people to develop their talents, connect with like-minded peers and begin to chart out their path toward success.”
“I look forward to seeing how it enriches the lives of our young people living on the West Side,” the mayor was quoted as saying.
In March 2018, then-Police Board President Lightfoot told the City Club of Chicago that CPD “desperately needs” a new training facility, but Emanuel’s plan to build the complex in West Garfield Park was “ill-conceived.”
“Putting this edifice to policing in this high-crime, impoverished neighborhood where relations between the police and the community are fraught, without a clear plan for community engagement, is a mistake,” Lightfoot said then.
“The allocation of any funds for a police academy is viewed by many as further affirmation that needs of the people will never be prioritized over those of the police.”
A month after taking office, Lightfoot dramatically changed her tune.
After touring the current police academy and seeing recruits apprehending mock suspects in a dark hallway, Lightfoot came away more convinced than ever a new academy is essential to improve training that the U.S. Justice Department found so sorely lacking.
But Lightfoot was not at all certain the two-building campus was “big enough” to house a training facility that will be “best-in-class” not just when it opens, but for decades afterward.