CHICAGO — To Carolyn Lang, West Pullman Elementary is more than the school across the street her children attended a quarter-century ago.

It’s where she turned for help when the lock on her front door froze and where school workers watch from their windows to make sure she doesn’t fall victim to crime in an impoverished corner of the city wracked by violence, including two men found shot to death in a car just days ago.

But no more. West Pullman is one of nearly 50 Chicago schools the city closed last spring as part of aggressive cost cutting that calls for the single largest closing of schools in any American city in years.

Critics of the closures have protested that children will be forced to cross gang boundaries to get to new schools. Largely overlooked are the worries of thousands of people like Lang who have relied on the schools to help safeguard poor neighborhoods. Soon, many of those buildings will go as dark and quiet as the boarded-up houses that dot their struggling communities.

“I used to come home late from prayer meetings at my church, and just seeing the light on and knowing the engineers and the janitors were working, I felt safe because they were there,’’ said Lang, 58. “Now it won’t be a safe haven anymore.’’

What will happen to Pullman and other schools is unclear. In recent years, most of the relatively few schools that have closed have reopened as charter, magnet, military, alternative or other kinds of schools.

Chicago schools spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the district is “serious about making sure these buildings have a useful purpose, whether they are sold to a private entity (or used as) some kind of community center.’’

But the district has never had to find new uses for so many vacant schools at once. Carroll seemed to acknowledge the challenge in an email, saying no one should expect the buildings to be repurposed “in time for the school year or over the next year.’’

For Terry Donaldson, that means a year or two without the security of the West Pullman school.

“I got to know the janitor over there, and he would be cutting the grass and we’d talk, and then he’d watch my back and I’d watch his back,’’ said Donaldson, 65. “Nobody bothered him or me because they know we watched each other.’’

Richard Ingram, who manages rental properties on the South Side, says some tenants call schools rather than police to report crimes to prevent criminals from discovering who they are.

“They’re afraid for their lives, but they know the schools can call and there won’t be any repercussions,’’ he said.

Nobody is saying that the closed schools will cause the neighborhoods to decline. That has been happening for years. But the concern is that the sight of shuttered schools will accelerate that decline.

“It is a signal that resources are leaving the community,’’ said Deborah Moore, director of neighborhood strategy at Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, a not-for-profit organization that helps people buy homes and keep them out of foreclosure. “There is no way I can market the community to young families. They aren’t going to move into a community with a closing school.’’

That is bad news for neighborhoods such as West Pullman, where census figures show the population fell by about 7,000, or 19 percent, between 2000 and 2010. Nearly a quarter of all mortgaged properties fell into foreclosure between 2008 and 2012, according to the Woodstock Institute, a housing policy group in Chicago.

Moore expects the population to fall, as families choose to live in neighborhoods that still have open public schools. And, she said, the number of foreclosures is sure to go up because school employees such as janitors and lunchroom workers, many of whom live nearby, will be at risk when they no longer have a paycheck.

The decline can happen quickly. In Englewood, one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods, residents have watched as abandoned homes are swiftly stripped of everything from copper pipes to toilets. In the year since Guggenheim Elementary School closed, they say, vandals have descended on the vacant building.

“They took the metal from the (air conditioning) units the first week after it closed,’’ said Priscilla Robinson, 53, who grew up across the street and attended Guggenheim in the early 1970s.

Soon, nearby manhole covers started disappearing, too, as thieves stole them to sell for scrap. It wasn’t long before the playground, so popular with neighborhood kids, including Robinson’s niece, was a place to be avoided.

“There’s always glass and debris, and it’s constantly being destroyed,’’ Robinson said.

The school is supposed to reopen this fall as an alternative high school. But that does not necessarily ease residents’ fears. One neighbor is concerned that students as old as 21 can attend.

The small children who once attended Guggenheim could be “mischievous,’’ said Henry Downing, who has lived nearby since 1966. “But they are nowhere near the threat to kids in this (older) age bracket will be.’’

Some 12 blocks north, the closing of Bontemps Elementary School has raised fears that another favorite playground could be destroyed if there are no school employees to protect it.

If that happens, Anna Perkins predicts the area will return to being a dumping ground, as it was before the playground was erected. Back then, the community had more to worry about than trash.

“They used to find bodies out there,’’ she said.

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(7) comments


If her neighbohood is that damn bad why does she and the rest of her neighbors continue to keep voting in the same alderman who refuse to deal with the problems of those neighborhoods? Decaying neighborhoods only stay that way by continued neglect by city officials who have no incentive to make improvements. If a person gets bitten by a mean dog one time it is the dogs fault. However if that person continues to interact with that biting dog and they get bit again it is the individuals fault. These urban areas that continue to experience social blight have one common denominator, liberal elected officials who have sered multiple terms representing them. This school is located on S. Parnell Ave and that is in Ward 34. The aldmerwoman of this ward is Carrie M. Austin who has been alderwoman since she was appointed by Richie Daley in 1994. She has been named a "power broker" of Chicago polictics and she epitominzes why these neighborhoods continue to DECAY. Here is Carries website where you can read all about her. She sounds rather impressive until you look at and listen to the people she is PRETENDING to represent. Prrof positive about how liberal democrats DO NOT make life better for those who loyally keep retaining them.

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Earlyriser, what we are looking at is a CULTURAL problem and not a political one. You are famous for politicizing everything, but the saddening issues in this story are GANGS and DRUGS and the overwhelming negative effect they have on neighborhoods. Once you get shady characters rollin' up into the 'hood, there's not a republican or democrat that can save the downfall of that area. It is such a lose-lose situation for anyone that cares. Parents who want their children in a safe place helplessly watch the riff raff creep in and fear for safety. Children who want to do well in school quickly become outnumbered 30:1 by wannabe gangbangers. Schools, and unfairly, teachers, become labeled as "failing" b/c the school has become infested with thugs who don't care and are there for drug sales, proving themselves to gang members with deviant actions, etc. It's a SOCIETAL problem, earlyriser.

Archie Goodwin
Archie Goodwin

But the SOCIETAL problem is a direct result of the failed social policies of the War on Poverty. Ever since the cave man humans have used the family unit as the foundation on which to build their society. Today's gangs are nothing more than a subconscious effort on the part of young people to have and be a part of a family. Their biological families have been destroyed by liberal welfare policies that penalize families who stay together. So young people just create their own family structure out of their psychological need for that structure.


I see what you're saying in that welfare has backfired, but I almost sense a "hug a thug" mentality from your post. I think part of any welfare needs to come with the DEMAND that the recipient takes charge of his/her life by getting a job. Many of these people, if they do get jobs, work just long enough to pay for their drug fix, get fired, and repeat the cycle. When exploring jobs/salaries, I see how easy it would be to be in lifelong poverty, but I also know that if you have the drive to better yourself you can work your way out of it. I think there is a comradery at all levels of socioeconomic status due to what people expect of themselves. It's birds of a feather whether it's "poor me" or "I'm going to succeed".


The failure was already there through a legacy of a lack of education, money, and opportunity.

Families everywhere have gone through the same transformations statistically yet haven't had the same gang activity.

Welfare didn't solve those issues, but it didn't create them. It prevented many from starving in the streets and did give a lucky few a chance to escape.
The problem is the cost to do it right.

Families are not penalized for staying together, that is just bonkers crazy.

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