Contested Space

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #5 in October 2007]

This essay was originally published in the summer 2007 issue of Critical Planning, the UCLA Journal of Urban Planning. (Vol. 14: Spatial Justice)


Education theorists such as Michael Apple and Henry Giroux analyze education’s role in the perpetuation of the economic status quo in urban America (Giroux 1988; Apple 1991; 2001). Often called “reproduction theorists,” these thinkers look at public education through a Marxist lens to identify how institutional structures create and maintain inequality. “Critical geographers” like David Harvey, Neil Smith and Don Mitchell also follow a Marxist tradition, focusing on location and spatiality to understand why inequality exists where it does (Mitchell 2003; Smith 1996; Harvey 1991; 1973). While a combination of education theory and critical geography can explain the structures that maintain inequality and the spatialization of power dynamics, they neglect to account for the self-initiated opposition sometimes raised by charismatic and persistent communities seeking to overturn structural injustices. The narrative of Chicago’s <b>Little Village Lawndale High School</b> (LVLHS) illustrates one such case in which the community interrupted the dictating power of the institution by asserting its collective voice.
The story of LVLHS begins on Mother’s Day 2001, when a group of Mexican-American mothers and grandmothers went on a hunger strike to fight for a new high school. It ends in September 2005, when a new $63 million building opened its doors to accept students. This study draws upon information gathered from newspaper articles, press releases, correspondence with Chicago Public School officials and interviews with key stakeholders and advocates, including Linda Sarate (one of the original hunger strikers), Jaime de Leon of the Little Village Community Development Corporation (one of the chief organizers of the hunger strike), Rito Martinez (the principal of theSocial Justice High School—one of the four separate schools that share the LVLHS building), andGeorge Beach (the project’s lead architect).
The LVLHS case study highlights the unequal spatial distribution of educational resources and the extreme challenges neighborhood residents face when they try to get involved in the decision-making process. Studies have shown that a particular school’s educational quality often reflects the socioeconomic makeup of its district (Kozol 1991). However, schools not only reflect the spatiality of existing power structures, but also can produce alternative structures. In this case, the residents of Little Village asserted their collective voice to demand the construction of a $63 million school building that has become a monument to their struggle and ongoing involvement in the design process. By refusing to succumb to neoliberal school reform movements currently in vogue in Chicago, the school advocates succeeded in a grassroots redistribution of educational resources in Chicago.

Background: Chicago’s Unequal Educational Landscape

To put the LVLHS case study in context, it is important to understand the unequal geographical distribution of educational resources within the City of Chicago as a whole and then focus on the demographics of the three neighborhoods that received new schools: Near North (Walter Payton College Prep), North Park (Northside College Prep) and Little Village (Little Village Lawndale High School).
Using statistics from the 1999-2000 school year, education theorist Pauline Lipman categorizes schools into “plus” and “minus” programs to illustrate how the geographic disparity of school quality in Chicago links spatially to demographics. Lipman’s study (which locates “plus” and “minus” schools on a map of Chicago’s six regions) reveals the clustering of “plus” schools in wealthy, white neighborhoods along the north lakeshore and the clustering of “minus” schools in poor African American and Latino neighborhoods in the south and central regions of the city. After the 1995 amendments to the Chicago School Reform Act, which reduced the power of Local School Councils and gave more authority to the Mayor of Chicago, new plus schools were placed in upper-income or gentrifying areas, while new minus schools were created in lower-income areas (see Figure 1 below) (Lipman 2004). Lipman’s claims that plus programs appear to be distributed equally throughout the six regions, but that the number of students served by the plus programs in Region 4, 5, 6 compared to the number of students served by new college-prep schools reveals an increase in educational inequality.

Figure 1: School Quality Distribution Pre- and Post-1995 (The year of the amendments made to the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act)

This pattern of unequal geographic distribution has persisted into the present. According to David Harvey in Social Justice in the City (1973), the logic of capitalism is such that “[t]he market system cannot dispose of the socially won surplus product in socially just ways” (Harvey 1973: 115). Harvey explains that there is a need to maintain scarcity in the housing market by “disinvesting” in certain locations so that old buildings can be razed and new ones built, thus feeding the market system of exchange. Similarly, there is an emerging pattern of disinvesting in schools and then reopening them as largely privatized entities. Renaissance 2010, also known as Ren10, is part of a larger plan to close 60 Chicago public schools and reopen them as 100 new, small schools—the majority of which will not have union representation and several of which will be privately operated. Pauline Lipman argues that the goal of Ren10 is to reshape the educational geography of Chicago by aiding the gentrification of particular neighborhoods and, in effect, increasing educational inequality (Lipman 2007).
In 1998 the Chicago Board of Education allocated funds to construct three new high schools with the eventual goal of having one selective enrollment high school in each of the six city regions (see figure 1). By 2001, two of these schools, Northside Prep and Walter Payton—selective enrollment high schools located in North Park and Near North—had been completed and were accepting students. However, the site designated for the third new high school remained vacant. This third site was located at the corner of 31st and Kostner in Little Village, a Mexican-American neighborhood that suffered from high school overcrowding.
The distribution and speed of new school development were related to the social and economic makeup of the neighborhoods. While North Park and Near North (middle- and upper-income neighborhoods on the North side) quickly received new schools, Little Village (a low-income neighborhood on the Southwest side) did not—an ironic outcome considering that Little Village had the greater need for improved educational resources. The spatial inequalities of resource distribution are evident in the tables below.  Table 1 reveals that the Little Village neighborhood holds a critical mass of poverty, with more than four times the population of North Park, the largest number of families living below the poverty line, and the lowest median family income.

Table 1: North Park, Near North, and Little Village Comparison

Table 2, which shows graduation rates, attendance rates, test scores, and racial demographics, compares North Side Prep and Walter Payton—the high schools constructed in North Park and Near North—with <b>Farragut Career Academy</b>, the school that previously served Little Village.

Table 2: Walter Payton, Northside College Prep and Farragut Career Academy Comparison

As evident by the table, Farragut Career Academy suffered from the lowest attendance and graduation rate. In addition, as the AP score and curricular standards data show, Farragut had by far the lowest success rates while also having the highest percentage of non-white students.
There is a relationship between demographics and high school success. In an Education Weekarticle, journalist Mary Ann Zehr described the Farragut environment:

Luis Reyes, a 17-year-old who attends Farragut High, says … ‘the school is crowded and suffers from high teacher turnover.’ More than a quarter of the teachers at Farragut have emergency or provisional credentials; on average, schools in Chicago have 8.2 percent of teachers in the same situation, according to the Illinois School Report Card (Zehr 2004: 34).

The Struggle for the Little Village Lawndale High School

Paul Vallas, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, attributed construction delays in Little Village to inadequate state funds and told Little Village community members that they needed to lobby the state legislature in Springfield to obtain funding (Garcia 2002). According to Jesus Garcia, Executive Director of Little Village Community Development Corporation (LVCDC), “The Board’s representatives would not accept responsibility for the delays and became intransigent; they politicized the issue so as to confuse and divide the community while refusing to acknowledge failure” (Garcia 2002: 6).

Tim Martin, the facilities manager for Chicago Public Schools, came to Little Village and provided two “options” for a new high school, each of which would serve only a fraction of the students the advocates represented. When the community protested these choices, Mr. Martin derogatorily implied that a school would do little for the community: their sons would still end up in gangs, while their daughters would still just get pregnant. Immediately following this meeting, block club leaders trained in community organizing began a series of events that resulted in the most visible of the political protests: a hunger strike to fight for the high school that had been promised to Little Village.
On Mother’s Day in 2001, a group of Mexican-American protesters, predominantly mothers and grandmothers, gathered near the corner of 31st Street and Kostner Avenue across the street from land that had been cleared in preparation for the construction of a new school (see image 1).Alderman Ricardo Muñoz had spent years lobbying for a new high school in response to residents’ frustration over the lack of educational options in the neighborhood. Angered by neglect and Mr. Martin’s arrogant and demeaning attitude, the protestors staged a hunger strike on the site, which they named Camp Chavez in honor of the famous Chicano organizer of migrant farm workers.
The series of events leading up to and following the strike represent a larger struggle about who should have access to city resources and how community decision-making should inform the process of resource distribution. Throughout the 19-day hunger strike and their struggles to stay engaged in the design process and to define the school’s classification, LVLHS advocates worked collectively to obtain the city resources that had been promised to them. They demanded money when they were told there was no more money. They not only insisted on being a significant part of the planning process, but also came to guide it.
The hunger strike’s highly publicized events shifted power away from the CEO of Chicago Public Schools and towards the community. According to a description provided by Jaime de Leon (one of the hunger strike organizers) when the strike began, CEO Paul Vallas refused to come to the site or acknowledge the strikers and said that he did not want to come to Little Village to meet with a few women who are refusing to eat. On the sixth day of the strike, after several media outlets had covered the story and more than 500 people were camping out on Camp Chavez, Vallas changed his mind and decided to visit. He arrived in his business suit with a cohort of staff members. He stood outside the tents and asked the strikers to come speak to him. The strikers (who were dressed in casual clothes) stayed where they were and told Vallas that if he wanted to speak with them, he would have to enter the tent and sit on a milk crate. Vallas paused, but eventually sat down on the milk crate to talk to the strikers. Thus, the hunger strikers were able to control space by dictating the location in which they would negotiate. Community members were proud that such a powerful figure was forced to negotiate on their turf, on their terms (DeLeon 2006).
During the 19-day strike, advocates developed a unique democratic decision-making process. As Garcia explains, “The hunger strikers and a handful of volunteers who dedicated time, resources and dedication to the campaign were allowed to participate in the discussions when decisions were to be made. The strikers had voting rights and [sought] consensus [from] those participating in the discussions” (Garcia 2002: 26). This process is important because the strikers were fighting for just resources in a just fashion.
In August of 2001, CEO Paul Vallas and Gery Chico (the President of the Chicago Board of Education) resigned. The Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, appointed Arne Duncan andMichael Scott, respectively, to the positions. One of Duncan’s first acts as the new CEO was to reallocate money to Little Village to begin the construction of the promised high school, which showed that the money that supposedly did not exist could indeed be found. The hunger strike alone did not enable the retroactive allocation of these funds, since several people including Alderman Ricardo Muñoz had been advocating for this school since the mid-1990s. However, the dramatic strike galvanized the community and fueled grassroots political action, which put public pressure on the Chicago Public Schools’ leadership.
Despite the shift in key political players and a renewed promise of funding, institutional roadblocks made community participation difficult. Even after the strike ended, the advocates struggled to keep the planning process local. Traditionally, when a new school is created, a <b>Request for Proposal</b> (RFP) is issued and a citywide bidding process ensues. However, the advocates for the new school felt that because the school was fought for by local community members, those same people should control the design, curriculum and leadership. Martinez states, “I would say a pretty major and significant victory was to keep this an in-house RFP process, and we would generate that process and select who should submit proposals” (Martinez 2006).

A Community-Driven Design Process

The story of LVLHS is unique because school advocates were included in the building design process. They worked with George Beach and Rick Dewar, architects from the firm OWP/P, to make sure the culture of the community and the memory of the strike were reflected in the physical architecture of the school. The architects held public charettes (or focus groups) to learn what was important to the community and gather design ideas. They distributed cameras to residents and asked them to capture images that defined their neighborhood. The community participants returned with images of local murals, monuments and mosaics that were then incorporated into the building design (see image 2; Beach 2006).
In her book The Power of Place, author Dolores Hayden writes, “Many cultures have…attempted to embed memory in narrative elements of buildings…[C]ommon urban places like union halls, schools, and residences have the power to evoke visual, social memory” (Hayden 1995: 46-47). The LVLHS complex is an example of monumental architecture, because the architect infused the space with traditional signs and symbols. The design team wanted the building to reflect the neighborhood’s Mexican-American heritage. They decided to use the Aztec creation myth of the “Five Worlds” or “Five Suns” as an analogy for the school’s educational structure. The Aztec myth claimed that when each of the four elements (wind, water, fire, earth) emerged separately, none survived. It was only when all four rose together and created the fifth element—that of community—that the world was created. Working with the Small Schools project of the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), the architect used this guiding theme to create four small schools within the larger complex, with a shared space as the “fifth element.” Other architectural details made reference to the strike, such as the glass windows inside the school that were crafted at 19 degree angles to represent the 19 days of the strike. Fourteen flowering trees were planted in front of the school to represent the fourteen original strikers (see image 3). Most dramatically, in the center of the complex is a multi-story silver spire (See image 4). On the inside of the spire there is a sundial that highlights the exact 19 days of the strike. At one point during those 19 days, light hits a combination of mirrors to magnify and reflect the light on the opposite wall of the spire (see image 5). The technique of aggregating multiple sources of light into one centralized space symbolizes the community’s collective struggle for the school and monumentalizes their unity and strength. Since the community was included in the design process, a unique space was created to pay homage to the neighborhood, the Mexican-American culture and the advocates who struggled to create it. Moreover, one of the four small schools in the complex dedicated its curriculum to social justice. Through its tangible structure and intangible curriculum, the school was designed to keep an empowering political event fresh in the minds of its students. As stated on the school’s website (, the mission of the Social Justice School reads, “Our students will cherish and preserve their ethnic and cultural identity, will serve and determine the future of our community, and will have a passion for peace, justice and the dignity of all people” (School 2007).
The community struggled to stay in control of a process usually enacted behind closed doors. After the school design was completed, the drawings were handed over to the Public Building Commission (PBC) for construction. The PBC officials told the community members that they were no longer needed and that the next phase was just “technical.” However, the advocates demanded to be included in more mundane decisions such as tile material and paint color (Martinez 2006).
Finally, even after the money was allocated, the design established and the physical building completed, the community had to fight to maintain its self-identity. School leaders (principals, teachers, advocates) objected to the announcement from Chicago Public Schools that the school would be counted as a Renaissance 2010 school. In line with the community’s dedication to social justice, the school’s planners objected to it being identified with a plan that has been criticized for promoting gentrification in Chicago neighborhoods. Rito Martinez explains:

The [Neighborhood Transition Advisory Council (TAC)] wrote all these letters saying we refuse to be part of Renaissance 2010. [The Chicago Public Schools] would come out with new literature announcing the new Renaissance 2010 and our name would be on there and we had counter media saying we were not, going back and forth, back and forth. Ren10 has, as you know, a very dark cloud over it especially in the Kenwood/Oakland neighborhood where it was used to gentrify a community – and we did not want to be a part of something that was suspect in such a horrible way. It was against all of our values. (Martinez 2006)

The local school community held a press conference to reject the designation. In a press release on December 13, 2004, Linda Sarate, one of the original 14 hunger strikers, stated: “We just want everyone to remember that our schools were the result of a community struggle that did not have anything to do with Renaissance 2010.” TAC member Josie Yanguas added, “We share some of the same concerns that other folks have from around the city regarding Ren10. It just leaves too many unanswered questions, on issues like evaluation process, the community’s role in governance, and autonomies”(De Leon and Coronado 2004). Despite a press conference and a press release objecting to the categorization, Chicago Public Schools currently lists all four of the small schools in LVLHS on their Renaissance 2010 website (Schools 2007).

Contested Space

Although construction has been completed and the school is in its second year of operation, the space continues to be contested. While the bricks and mortar are fixed, the meaning of the space is not. Constructed by a design team to reflect the values of social justice embodied in the struggle for the school, the building is constantly taking on new meanings. Before the school opened, for example, the Chicago Public School Capital Planning Group, operating under the (often contested) desegregation consent decree in Illinois, drew the boundaries for the school so that 30 percent of its slots are secured for students from neighboring North Lawndale, a predominately African-American neighborhood. This action has resulted in tension between residents of the two neighborhoods. In order to represent the population served, its teachers and administrators, as well as the official school website, call the school Little Village Lawndale High School (LVLHS). However, the front of the building bears the name “Little Village High School” in large block letters (see image 6). This semantic discrepancy affects who feels “ownership” over the school.
Controversies over boundary lines and who can be admitted to the school have also changed its meaning for residents of both Little Village and North Lawndale. To those who are denied access, the impressive spire and $63 million campus represent what their children are not able to receive. Recently, State Senator Martin Sandoval created a stir when he initiated a referendum on the issue of whether the boundaries of the school should be changed to include more residents of Little Village. The results of the referendum showed that a slight majority of Little Village residents who completed the referendum were in favor of redrawing the boundaries. While this referendum was purely advisory and no boundary lines were redrawn, the meaning of the school continues to be contested (Rossi 2006: 6).
David Harvey’s assessment of housing resources asserts that residential inequality is due to the scarcity of good housing, itself a product of a capitalist society. The LVLHS case reveals that there is a scarcity of educational resources in Chicago and that particular communities are excluded from deciding how they are distributed. The events described above demonstrate the struggle over the unequal distribution of educational resources and the ability of residents to determine if, how, andwhere public money is spent in providing educational resources for their neighborhoods.
There are several moments within this case study in which the construction of meaning is determined by the construction of space. For example, the struggle between CEO Paul Vallas, who at first refused to negotiate on Camp Chavez but later conceded to negotiate while sitting on a milk crate in a tent, shows how the hunger strikers used their space to wield power. The design team for the building used icons and symbols of the strike and Mexican-American culture to shape the physical structure of the building into a living monument. Finally, the completion of the school (the building and the curriculum) and the ongoing fight for self-definition reveal the power of advocates to create meaning for residents of Little Village and other neighborhoods throughout Chicago. The story of LVLHS shows not only that the spatial distribution of educational resources often benefits wealthier, predominately Caucasian areas at the expense of lower income minority areas, but also that lower income minorities can fight for and secure reallocation. The struggle for the LVLHS building illustrates how space reflectspower (“good” schools are built in wealthy neighborhoods without a struggle) but also how space canproduce power and how collective action can result in a more spatially just distribution of educational resources.

Joanie Friedman recently completed her Master of Arts at DePaul University’s Social and Cultural Foundations in Education Program. She is a graduate of Brown University and currently works at the University of Chicago’s Civic Knowledge Project.


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