Op-Ed: East Village—A forgotten destination for children

Andersen Schoolby Brian Roman

The Ugly Duckling is a famous Hans Christian Andersen story of a duckling, abandoned and deserted because he was different.…

It is unfortunate that our East Village H.C. Andersen School is more often than not treated the same way. On July 25th at 9:17pm, a homicide of a 17 year old boy was committed on the playground of Andersen School. This was a recent but certainly tragic and extreme example of how this school has been used and abused by its neighbors and visitors to the area.

Making the nightly news for this incident certainly was not what anyone wanted. Not to dismiss the severity of this incident but perhaps it is an extreme example of the ill treatment and apathy that this school receives daily from its neighbors. I have lived in the East Village neighborhood for 9 years and have seen a great deal of change first hand.

Our area has undergone a huge visible change in housing stock, businesses and income level. One thing that I have not really seen is a dramatic change in the relationship between the community and Andersen School. During my time I have seen Andersen School too easily forgotten but conveniently remembered – to these charges I also plead guilty.

When I first came to this neighborhood a group of four to six people used to meet early in the morning at Commercial Park to let our dogs run off leash (illegally) when no one else was around. Although we were quiet and always cleaned up after our dogs, this practice eventually came to an end due to complaints from neighbors resulting in visits by the Police.

Visit Andersen school almost any day during the week in the late afternoon and you will see that their ball field and playground are being used for a new and larger crew of pooches under the shadow of a “No Dogs Allowed” sign on the school building. Not under the cover of darkness or morning mist but in broad daylight and obviously without much complaint.

For anyone who has lived here, the 4th of July celebrations are quite dramatic. For years major displays originated on Wood St within a stones throw from the Police station. This year that display was dramatically reduced but what I saw and heard was Andersen School’s playground taking its place.

As you can see from the photo the playground was ground zero and the aftermath left for visitors and students. Not only were scenes like this tough to take in but what you do not see is the school bus driver at the fence shaking his head and saying that he would soon be bringing students here.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that the community has remembered…conveniently remembered this school. It was easy for many of us to hold up the presence of school children when opposed to the granting of a liquor license across the street. Is that where our concern ended?

We keep hearing how everyone – politicians, residents, and businesses – sees our area as a destination for eating, drinking and shopping. We often forget that this has been, and continues to be, a destination for children to learn and to play. Shouldn’t we take more pride in the children’s destination to our area?

Although from afar, the playground equipment at H.C. Andersen School looks somewhat new, it is decorated with graffiti and now with the flower memorial to the teen that was murdered. Thankfully the school is not completely forgotten. I know there are groups out there, such as the East Village Youth Program, who are working for the children of Andersen school and in fact some of the proceeds obtained by EVA from the 2006 Oysterfest were donated to the school.

Unlike when I moved here, Division Street is almost always bustling with motorists and pedestrians passing by the building with the cool floating wood sculpture on their way to a restaurant, bar or a street festival not realizing what this building actually means.

Recently, H.C. Andersen was ranked 1908 out of 2282 elementary schools in Illinois with 93% of the students qualifying for discounted meals. For an area undergoing such dramatic changes wouldn’t it be great if we could apply a bit of change to the way we think and treat this school, its property and the children who come here? Imagine what it could become with our effort and concern…

The duckling had grown into a beautiful swan, and had never been an ugly duckling after all.