Altgeld Gardens Tries to Stay Cool

by Quintana Woodridge and Alisha Jacobs 

A playground not equipped with sprinklers in the Altgeld Gardens public housing development stands empty during the recent heat wave. Altgeld has a shortage of cooling centers. Photo by Quintana Woodridge.

Editor’s Note: The following article was co-written by a youth reporter who is a graduate of the Urban Youth International Journalism Program class at People for Community Recovery, a not-for-profit organization based in the Altgeld Gardens public housing development, and Quintana Woodridge, our youth program coordinator.

Over the summer, Altgeld Gardens has been feeling the heat. The residents in the Chicago Housing Authority public housing development on the Far South Side have not had a public place where they can go to stay cool. Most of the rehabbed units in the development have central air systems in their housing units, but when they are not working, there are very few places to go. The nearest swimming pool is also closed and there are no sprinklers in the play lots throughout Altgeld.

A few residents recently expressed their concerns about the Phillis Wheately Center Library being closed on several hot days during the month of July; at the time there was a heat advisory across the Chicago area. The residents were under the impression that the library is a designated cooling center. Residents were shocked to find out that a central air conditioning system was not installed in the library when it was opened.

“When it’s hot out we open the windows and put fans throughout the library. If it gets too hot we don’t open the library for that day,” said Shante Jackson, the children’s library associate told Residents’ Journal youth reporter Alisha Jacobs. Jackson went on to say that for a few weeks in September, the library will be closed so that an air conditioning system can be installed.

At least one community activist will be very happy when the library has a cooling system. “It’s a shame the library had to be closed during the hot days. Libraries are supposed to serve as a cooling center. There isn’t anywhere for the residents to stay cool here in Altgeld Gardens when their housing unit air conditioner isn’t working. There isn’t a designated cooling center within the Riverdale community area. On top of that, the Carver Park District indoor swimming pool has been closed due to construction since December 2010,” said Cheryl Johnson, the executive director of People for Community Recovery, an environmental activist group. (Editor’s Note: We The People Media collaborates with People for Community Recovery on our Urban Youth International Journalism Program.)

A spokesperson for Ald. Anthony Beale (9) offered a statement about the closing of the Phillis Wheately Center Library: “The library is where the residents can go to stay cool. We have had a few complaints about there not being any air in the library and we are looking in to that. There may not be a cooling center within Altgeld, but there are several around the city of Chicago. If anyone is in need of a cooling center, they can call 311 and the operator will direct them to the nearest cooling center in their area. Transportation is provided for those who need it.”

RJ contacted East Lake, the property manager for Altgeld Gardens, and spoke with Gertie Smith, who also manages Trumbull Park and Lowden Homes. When asked about the swimming pool, Smith stated that the swimming pool was a Park District issue. Smith did confirm, however, that East Lake is responsible for the play lot areas throughout Altgeld and when asked why there aren’t any sprinkler systems on the play lots, Smith said, “I have no idea and can’t answer that question.”

One resident of Altgeld noted that the development’s neighbor does have sprinklers in their lots. “Golden Gates Community (neighbors to Altgeld) has water sprinklers and has no pool; whereas Altgeld has a pool and no water sprinklers,” said Marguerite Jacobs.

“I’m a loyal swimmer and I’m so pissed and disappointed this pool has been closed this long. Carver Military has a swimming pool, but not open to the public. Why can’t our parks be treated like Lincoln Park? It’s a shame. We need a pool to cool our kids off. This is the longest time in history our pools have been closed. Kids break into fire hydrants and this messes with our water pressure in our units, but I’ve never seen any fire fighter come turn off fire hydrants. Someone from the management office usually turns them off,” exclaimed Johnson.

Park District area manager Anita Gilkey wasn’t available to make comments on the expected date for the re-opening of the pool. RJ interviewed Monbroke Butlers, the physical education instructor and superintendent of Carver Park, who stated that the Carver Park indoor swimming pool is open all year round and has a retractable roof. “The pool closed Dec. 13, 2010, for construction and a sign was placed on the door that said closed until further notice. The shower room is also closed, because it’s in the same area as the swimming pool; so when our youth finish playing their sports games they can’t even take shower to cool down.” Butlers also told RJ that Carver Park was considered a cooling center last year. He added that he isn’t sure if they are still on the list to be a cooling center.

“We have three air-conditioned rooms; one is in need of the maintenance and the other two rooms are rather small, but the Chicago Youth Center (CYC) has the best air-conditioned building out here in Altgeld Gardens. As for the people here in the ‘gardens’ using the pool; more people normally use the pool a lot during the summer and fewer people use it during the winter.”

In order to verify that the CYC center had air conditioning and to find out if the residents had access to the building during the unbearably hot days that we have each summer here in Chicago, RJ spoke with Lanette Dixion, CYC community computer lab attendant. Dixion told RJ that letters were sent out informing the residents that the lab was closed. “We have been without AC for two weeks now. We are using a fan to cool off the community room. That’s the only air we have had.”

Will Altgeld have to face the sweltering heat without proper means of staying cool? What are the plans for next year? Will East Lake property management, Ald. Beale and the Chicago Park District do whatever it takes to prevent a worst case scenario of heat strokes or heat-related deaths?

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