A North Side Boys & Girls Club is shutting its doors Friday, a move that has members disappointed and their parents worried and frustrated.
Joanna Burns, 17, is one of them. She has been a lifelong member of the Daniel A. Cotter Boys & Girls Club, which since 1963 has sat in the northernmost corner of the Lathrop Homes, a nearly empty public-housing development along the Chicago River at Diversey Avenue. She is tall and vivacious with a baby face and toothy grin. Though her family no longer lives at Lathrop, Joanna still spends almost every day at the club and is seen as a leader by the staff and her peers.
Last Tuesday she and 24 other children from the club were at a Cubs game with mentors from WGN. It would be their last outing together, and by the seventh-inning stretch Joanna was in tears as she thought about losing her “second family.”
"It's like our own little safe haven,” she said. Though the facility has been surrounded by boarded up buildings for many years, it has continued to be an important community center. "It's home. I'm always at the club. To take it away from us is not even fair, especially right before the summertime."
The club serves children from age 6 to 18 from both the Lathrop Homes and the surrounding community. Generations of children who grew up in the development have relied on the space and staff for after-school homework help, extracurricular activities, summer camp, and mentorship.
According to Cotter staff the club on any given day serves between 40 and 170 children, most of them black or Hispanic, and during the school year the club is home to the athletic program for nearby Alcott College Prep, a CPS school whose gym is too small for regulation basketball and volleyball games.
Speculation, Then Confirmation, but Still Questions
Rumors about an impending closure cropped up this winter, but for two months Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago officials, who oversee Cotter and 20 other clubs in and around Chicago, declined to respond to my inquiries. Then on April 15, a letter from Alicia Tellez Vega, BGCC’s vice president of youth development, informed children and parents that there would be no summer programming at Cotter this year as the club prepared to move to a new space.
The current location will not reopen in the fall, and a new location has not been secured yet. According to Vega and Alcott assistant principal Grace Moody, plans are in the works to house Cotter’s non-athletic programming at Alcott and to house Alcott’s athletic programming elsewhere.
Moody said she is worried about securing a new space in time for August volleyball practices. "Without the Boys & Girls Club our athletic program is going to be demolished,” she said.
It remains unclear why Cotter had to close now, as the redevelopment of the Lathrop Homes is far from “underway,” as Vega’s letter states. No ground has been broken for new construction, nor have any buildings been demolished, and a financial and legal framework to transform Lathrop Homes into a mixed-income community is not yet in place.
The Chicago Housing Authority owns the building but CHA spokeswoman Wendy Parks denied CHA involvement in Cotter’s closure. In fact, the Mary Crane Center, a day care that shares the building with Cotter, is not planning to close anytime soon.
In an interview last Tuesday, BGCC’s Vega said the choice to close Cotter was made because construction around the Cotter site would begin “in the middle of the school year.” She said the organization judged it would be a safety hazard for the kids.
Vega declined to specify a month when she thought such redevelopment would begin, but the CHA’s Parks said no construction would begin next school year. “The Chicago Housing Authority is not closing the Cotter Boys and Girls Club. The Boys and Girls Club is an asset to the community,” Parks wrote in an email. “CHA is prepared to extend their lease, as the Club has requested [in March].”
A day after our initial conversation, Vega and I spoke again, this time joined by public-relations consultant Marj Halperin. Vega confirmed that the club had received an extension to the lease that had been scheduled to end in June, and she explained that the new lease includes a 30-day exit clause that would allow the club to move any time with a month’s notice. When asked again what potential mid-year construction had to do with the move, Vega said that it was an unsafe environment in the neighborhood now that led to the decision.
“Your own article in the Reader called it a ghost town a year ago,” Halperin pointed out.
Few Alternatives for Families
But other sources say the safest place for neighborhood children this summer would have been the Cotter Club, and the announcement came too late to enroll in nearby summer parks programs. Vega’s letter to parents suggested signing up for summer programs at Boys & Girls Clubs in Logan Square or Uptown, but families I spoke with do not see these as realistic alternatives.
Lathrop resident Lynda Cintron says both clubs are too far from the neighborhood. The single mother’s job with a North Side dog-walking service can have unpredictable hours, and she fears she would not be able to pick up her daughter in time.
Meanwhile, her daughter, Sydney, 11, is saddened by the prospect of spending a summer cooped up inside. "I think it's terrible. Actually, worse than terrible. It's a catastrophe! I go to summer camp [at Cotter] and if it closes I have nothing much to do."
Cintron said the camp exposed Sydney to things outside the neighborhood, such as movie outings and trips to the beach and swimming pools. "This has helped her so much. She was diagnosed clinically depressed with unspecified anxiety disorder. She's learning disabled, she's developmentally delayed.” Since she started going to Cotter, Cintron says, Sydney has more friends and is doing better in school. “She's much more social, they've seen a marked improvement in her therapy, in all her tests.”
An additional problem for teens who come to Cotter is that the alternative Boys & Girls Club locations are across gang lines. On a recent afternoon at Lathrop I spoke with a man who goes by Jroc. Now 24, he grew up in the neighborhood and attended the Cotter Club. He was frank about what losing the club would mean, particularly for teenage boys, even if they are not personally involved in a gang. "It's the one part of this neighborhood—ain't no gangs hang out on that corner, ain't none of that,” he said. "[Kids] go over there to get away from all this. They wouldn't let no gang members come in there if they was gonna bullshit. If you was a gang member and you was in the club then you were doing something positive.”
He described Cotter as “a little piece of heaven.” Without a space to spend time playing sports and doing other productive activities, he says some neighborhood kids might wind up in trouble. “Going to jail—that's all there is. Ain't nobody over here got no money. A lot of kids over here want to do things but they ain't got the money to do it, and you've got the drug dealers that's wanting to give them money. The club kept us out of that.”
Cintron agrees. "I look at some of these kids that are here, especially some of these young boys—they're gonna get into a lot of trouble,” she said. “We have people that come to the neighborhood just to hang out; they don't actually live here. The boys get in with them, they hang out, and they party and they drink, and there's not much that their moms and dads can do about it, because they are not here. They're at work."
When I met Club staffer Marlon Finley last year while reporting my story for the Reader, he emphasized that Cotter is a “neutral zone” between gang territories. Joanna and other members acknowledged the gang issue as well.
"I feel like [BGCC leaders] weren't thinking about our safety, going from our neighborhood to another neighborhood," Joanna said. "There's gang violence, people can be territorial. If we don't have summer camp, what are we gonna do? Be on the streets and sell drugs? Be gang-banging? I know most of the people [at Cotter] and that's exactly what they're gonna do. There's really no other place for us to go. They would risk getting jumped or something going to McCormick or going to Logan.”
The handling of Cotter’s closure has also been frustrating to community members who had ties to the club. Jane Hayden, director of operations at WGN, has organized the school-year mentoring program for over 20 years. Hayden said that when she complained to the leadership about poor communications she did not get the response she hoped for. “All they seem to do is pat me on the back, and I'm like, That's not why I'm doing it. People deserve to have some level of honesty. There's no direction, that's the saddest part of all of this. My guess is they just want it to go away."
BGCC leaders maintain that they are trying their best to respond to concerns. Vega said she was pleased with a recent “listening circle” she organized with Cotter teens to hear their opinion about the closure. “We’ve been really working as intimately as we can with each of the families to help them secure a summer camp program,” she said.
Joanna rolled her eyes when I asked about the listening circle. “When I walked in I just knew it was pointless,” she said. “We had a lot of questions, but certain questions she'd swerve off.” She said they never got a straight answer to the most important question of all: “Why is the club closing down? [Vega] was saying the club is closing down but we want you teenagers to help us decorate the new club. I started crying when she said that. It just hurt my feelings so bad.”
Joanna told me that losing Cotter staff members will be hard. “I love them with all my heart,” she said. Though they say they are supposed to be relocated to work at other clubs this summer, staff members (who did not wish to be named for fear of losing their jobs) told me they have not received any information from BGCC about new locations, contracts or salary details.
Joanna had planned to work at Cotter for the summer and was looking forward to competing for next year’s Youth of the Year Award, an honor bestowed on one Chicago Boys & Girls Club member each year. Participants hone their interview, public speaking, and writing skills, and winners receive college scholarships.
Three of the past five Youths of the Year have come from Cotter.
As the group at Wrigley Field gathered for some final photos, Joanna’s mentor, Elyse Russo, executive producer of digital content at WGN, said she understood that organizations like the Boys & Girls Club have financial difficulties that may drive decisions like this. Nonetheless, she said she wished there had been a better plan.
"I think that not a lot is constant for a lot of these kids. The club was the one thing that was."