Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, an historic building tied to the Fifth Ward and its families, should not be torn down and rebuilt, many residents argued strenuously Tuesday night during a sometimes contentious community meeting about the future of the neighborhood and its new school.

More than 150 Evanstonians filled the Fleetwood-Jourdain Center to hear about plans for the new historic Evanston/Skokie School District 65 neighborhood school on the site of Foster Field.

District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton, left, and Fifth Ward Council Member Bobby Burns at Tuesday’s community meeting. Credit: Gina Castro

The meeting brought out a who’s who of community leaders, including longtime former director of Family Focus and former Fifth Ward Council member Delores Holmes; Morris “Dino” Robinson, Jr., founder of Shorefront Legacy; City Manager Luke Stowe and Evanston Police Chief Schenita Stewart. Giving the presentation were even more city and school stalwarts such as District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton, Mayor Daniel Biss, Fifth Ward City Council Member Bobby Burns and Dara Munson, president and chief executive of Family Focus.

Dara Munson, president and CEO of Family Focus, speaks as Fifth Ward Council Member Bobby Burns, left, and Mayor Daniel Biss listen. Credit: Richard Cahan

Listeners were quiet and attentive during the opening portion of the meeting as officials from District 65 and the City of Evanston outlined potential design concepts. Brian Kronewitter and Alex Lopez from architecture firm Cordogan Clark presented four potential design options for the Fifth Ward school campus. (See below.)

But when the question and answer session kicked off, the room filled with emotion over the fate of the very building where they were gathering.

“There’s history here that can still be here and include a school,” said Donna Walker, who owns Cutting Edge Hair Gallery in the Fifth Ward and is a member of the Central Evanston Business Association.

“This is the center of Evanston. Why can’t we make this great? Why do we have to move us to accommodate anything?”

Donna Walker, owner of Cutting Edge Hair Gallery, speaks at the meeting. Credit: Richard Cahan

Walker said there is so much good coming from Fleetwood-Jourdain, the Fifth Ward community should not have to lose it to make room for its long overdue school. “You guys don’t care what we want,” Walker said.

Walker and others also said that items like the new school project, maintenance improvements to other social service buildings such as Family Focus and even better lighting in the neighborhood have all come to the Fifth Ward as it has started losing its Black population.

They expressed worry about rising home prices and rapid gentrification of the historically Black ward and worried aloud about trusting the city or the school district to follow through on their plans after decades of unmet promises.

Tina Paden said the city didn’t do enough to notify residents in the ward about the meeting. Walker said she heard about the meeting by word of mouth. 

“Some people do not have computer access,” Paden said. “The Black community is being left out because we were not informed. There should have been flyers in the neighborhood of this meeting.”

At the same time people also spoke fondly of Fleetwood-Jourdain and the memories they had of the center. People talked about doing homework or playing sports at the community center while growing up.

As one person told the crowd, “Don’t sell grandma’s house.” But the message was clear and residents did not mince words: Fleetwood-Jourdain is a pillar of the Fifth Ward, and the building itself represents community, family and history for Black Evanstonians.

From school to community center

The District 65 school board approved the new school project last spring, but the city came forward in August with concerns about the size and scale of the development on a property as limited in space as Foster Field.

As a result, the city recommended alternative options like possibly demolishing and rebuilding Fleetwood-Jourdain to make enough room for the Fifth Ward campus.

Karla Thomas, chair of Evanston’s Equity and Empowerment Commission, questioned what the city is going to do to stop rapid gentrification of the neighborhood with these improvements. Credit: Richard Cahan

If the community center is demolished and rebuilt, it will be out of use for an estimated 18 to 24 months, said Alex Lopez, one of the architects on the project, to a RoundTable reporter after the meeting.

The entire campus project will take up to two years, he said. The Family Focus building will take over some or all of the center’s programs while the community center is under construction, Lopez said. 

The community center is also one of the Fifth Ward’s two voting polling places. Lopez said the center’s polling place duties will be moved to the Family Focus building as well.

Despite that desire to leave Fleetwood-Jourdain untouched, Burns and longtime activist Holmes encouraged residents to consider what a neighborhood school could mean for kids growing up in the Fifth Ward.

Even though the existing community center building means so much to people, taking advantage of a once-in-a-generation investment like a school could leave a positive impact on many future generations, Holmes argued.

Plus, rebuilding Fleetwood-Jourdain could offer the possibility of a community indoor swimming pool and a permanent, year-round roller skating rink. Having extra green space for recreational activity is great, Holmes said, but the community center and the school are what matters, given that Evanston has lots of parks, athletic fields and facilities.

“Whatever we can do, whatever issues, we’ve got to come up with another concept that gives us two buildings on this spot, on this land, for Fleetwood and our school,” Holmes said. “That’s what I hear the people saying they want.” 

Several people asked why the district and the city could not find a way to build the school on a different property if preserving green space was a concern. 

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“Let’s talk about the kids that are being served in this community,” said resident Toinette Tillman. “I need this center because it works for me, so when y’all talk about design, if you want the school, build the school somewhere else. Leave Fleetwood alone.”

Earlier in the meeting, Biss had said to people: “Let’s get to the point of being here tonight: the community’s got to decide what the community wants. And the reason that all these options are here is because we need to weigh the different considerations, like balancing the desire for more open space – which everybody has – against the historic significance of this building. That’s an unresolved issue for this room and the rest of the community to work through before we make a decision.”

At the end of the meeting, Horton asked the crowd to “give us a shot,” and he promised to listen to community feedback and make sure the district will deliver on its promise to bring a school back to the Fifth Ward. 

Those involved anticipate breaking ground on the project in the fall of 2023 and opening the school for the fall of 2025.

Family Focus is one of the partners in creating the Fifth Ward Foster Park Campus.

The RoundTable asked Munson which of the four site plan concepts Family Focus prefers. “We don’t know yet…,” she responded. “We’ve seen versions but this is our first time seeing this iteration.”

The four preliminary designs

Here are the designs presented by Kronewitter and Lopez from Cordogan Clark for four potential options for the Fifth Ward school campus.

The first proposal would leave Fleetwood-Jourdain untouched, while the other three ideas would rebuild or relocate the community center. All four concepts leave room for varying levels of green space and parking. The last design, though, would move Fleetwood-Jourdain to an entirely different site about a block away, which would require the city to purchase land for the relocated community center. 

For his part, Lopez emphasized that the design renderings presented Tuesday are “just lines on paper,” and that “nothing has been decided.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the Evanston RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative...

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  1. Does anyone remember what Robert Crown used to look like? It too was packed with memories of beaten up skates, and AYSO/ flag football on uneven fields. Change is difficult. And yet, seeing Crown as it is today, it’s hard to advocate for the way things used to be.

  2. I attended Foster School and have long thought the 5th Ward needed a new school to replace it and serve the wards youth. The space that Family Focus and The Fleetwood Jourdain Center occupies is sacred, and historically extremely significant to Evanston’s Black Community . Our parents lives, our lives and our friends lives are intertwined in that space spanning many years. How the city handles this situation can have positive or very negative effects to the city and 5th Ward community. Fleetwood Jourdain Center must remain and be first Class if the structure is to be replaced. It has long served as a part of the life blood of the community. Ditto for Family Focus. No matter the decisions regarding this project there will be some not pleased. I pray decisions will be made to best serve the 5th Ward life time residents, the 5th Ward youth, and the community at large.

  3. I was at the meeting. The first thing I heard was Superintendent Horton promising that all is good. None of this will cost the taxpayers anything. I’m a real estate developer. I want on this boat.

  4. The fact that the District is not using the traditional bonding mechanism for raising the money to build the school is all you need to know. That would have required a referendum–or actually asking the community what we want.

    Instead they are going to be using the operations budget to finance the school. What that means is that there will be less money for teachers, supplies, extra-curricular activities, etc….

    So we may have a nice building, but education of the kids in the building will likely suffer.

  5. The city and D65 aren’t listening to the residents. Not sure why I’m surprised. First and foremost all residents should be informed of all meetings. And their voices should be heard. Not having the community center for almost 2 years is a major issue and it doesn’t sound like our leaders see that as a problem. It is. Families need and use Fleetwood-Jourdain every day!! The residents want to keep the space. Listen!! Work together!!! I have zero trust that Horton or Biss will see this project through or produce what they are promising. The 5th ward has every reason to be skeptical!

  6. “You guys don’t care what we want.” That pretty much sums it up. The polarization of the races continues here in Evanston