Closure & Afterlife: Reimagining Shuttered Schools in ChicagoFall 2018

Abstract

In 2013, the Chicago Public School (CPS) system shut down or phased out 49 elementary schools, claiming their space was underutilized. 88% of students affected by the closures were African American, and the decision represented to many another blow in a long history of disinvestment by city officials. This unprecedented wave of closures not only disrupted the lives of students experiencing them, but also the neighborhoods surrounding the shuttered schools. Many of the schools, formidable in size and central in location, have long histories as community anchors, serving as practical and symbolic sites of social cohesion. The deactivation of those sites causes trauma to communities and generates insecurity as citizens are left to wonder what the futures of the buildings will be. The sale and development of the properties have been carried out within Chicago’s aldermanic system under an opaque and exclusionary process. While research about Chicago’s closures have centered mainly on the educational impacts of the decision, this thesis analyzes the repurposing of the leftover school buildings with an attention to process over outcome. The case of Overton Elementary shows the importance of considering social and historical context in the repurposing of schools. Through interviews, site visits, and archival research, I studied the history and present context of Overton in order to connect its past to its emerging future. In light of the destructiveness of school closures, I propose a more participatory process in the reimagining of these spaces in Chicago and beyond.

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