When the U.S. Olympic Committee announced last Saturday that Chicago would be the country's candidate to host the Olympics in 2016, Gerald Turner, the city's top high school hurdler, didn't join in the cheering.
"We shouldn't even think about bringing the Olympics here until we build at least one field house for the city," says Turner, a senior at Lane Tech. "We should put money into the schools before the Olympics." Turner's bitterness is understandable: he and Chicago's other high school track athletes have to practice in the hallways three months out of the year.
Chicago Public Schools athletics are in bad shape. Suburban teams typically trounce their Chicago rivals in football, baseball, and all of the Olympic sports other than basketball--track and field, swimming, volleyball, wrestling, gymnastics, tennis, soccer, badminton. You could fill a book with the reasons, starting with money. As any coach will tell you, it doesn't pay to work in the city: you make less and you're up against more. The average suburban school coach gets paid at least $6,000 a season; assistants can make upward of $5,000. In the city head coaches make $3,000.
And then there's the dearth of facilities. To take just one example, though the indoor track season runs from January through March, there's not one indoor field house for any public school in Chicago. The Chicago Public Schools' annual indoor track championship is usually held at Proviso West, out in Hillside. School officials say they don't have the money for an indoor track.
So until the weather warms up, most public school track teams hit the hallways. True, in the old days many great city runners--like Olympic champion Ralph Metcalfe--trained this way. But that was when no schools had indoor facilities. Now they're common in suburban school districts.
There are four Chicago public high schools with strong track and field programs: Whitney Young, Lane Tech, Mather, and Morgan Park. All scramble to find adequate practice space for the indoor months. During the winter Lane Tech coach Kris Roof schedules his shot-putters and long jumpers for practice once a week in one cramped school gym. "But that's the only time we can get the gym for them to practice," says Roof. "It's a miracle no one gets hurt."
Over at Whitney Young, girls coach Bob Geiger stays late, long after his sprinters and mid--distance runners have left, to make practice time for his pole--vaulters and high jumpers--the gym's too small for both groups. "Some schools have to teach kids how to run the hurdles and they don't have any hurdles," Geiger says. "How can you teach hurdling without a hurdle? It's like teaching double Dutch without a jump rope."
Indeed, it's almost painful to watch many public school kids attempt the event. Some runners approach each hurdle with trepidation, stopping before they leap. Others are like fullbacks, smashing through instead of leaping over.
Part of the problem, coaches say, is that there aren't any strong grammar school feeder programs. Years ago kids in Chicago learned how to jump or throw the shot put by competing on Park District teams. But with the Park District's drastic cuts in programming, those days are long gone. The top competitors learn their skills at private track clubs (most of which are based in the suburbs) or don't learn them at all until high school. "You get them when they're sophomores and juniors," says Roof. "And you teach them from scratch."
Turner is one such case. In grammar and middle school he played basketball. He didn't start track until he was a sophomore. According to his coaches, his commitment is exemplary. "I'm really impressed with our kids," says Roof. "When you think about what they go through, they're amazing."
For Turner, part of the ordeal is just getting to school, which takes him about two hours. "I take two buses and a train every day," he says. "I get up at about 4:30, get out of the house at 5:30, and catch the 71st Street bus to the Red Line, the Red Line to Addison, and the Addison bus to Lane. Then I have to do the same thing in reverse going home. On practice days I usually get home by about 8."
In the winter months he and his fellow hurdlers practice in a third-floor hallway. "It's sort of dangerous," he says. "You have people coming out of classrooms all the time, so you're always a little worried that someone will suddenly walk in your way. We're always yelling 'Track!'"
The biggest problem with running in the hallways is the wear and tear on the body. The floors are hard and unforgiving, and the constant pounding leads to shin splints and stress fractures. Turner says one of his ankles is chronically achy. "The coaches are always telling us to try and land softly," he says. "But, you know, it's hard to land softly once you start running."
Despite his disadvantages, Turner finished fourth in the 55-meter hurdles at last month's Illinois Prep Top Times indoor championship in Bloomington. He's hoping to qualify for the state outdoor championship next month, though he's currently suffering from a groin strain.
Kris Roof thinks the city should link the Olympics to an outreach program that builds field houses all over the city and stocks them with supervisors who know what they're doing. But at the moment the city has no plans to build any track and field facilities for the schools or general public. While the Olympic boosters raise millions to bring the games to Chicago, the next generation of public school track students will share Turner's plight--running the hard hallways and ripping the hell out of their legs.
Last summer when Mayor Daley and other city officials proposed the LaSalle Central tax increment financing district, they promised it would pay for a new trolley line, resurface streets, restore landmark buildings, and create new parks and schools.
Eventually it may do all that--it will have well over $1 billion in diverted property taxes to work with over the next 23 years. But the TIF's first proposed expenditure doesn't offer much benefit to Chicagoans.
On April 10 the Community Development Commission, the board appointed by Daley to oversee TIFs, recommended that about $2.4 million in funds from the LaSalle Central TIF be turned over to the Ziegler financial services firm to cover 28 percent of the costs of moving its headquarters to the skyscraper at 200 S. Wacker. Currently headquartered in Milwaukee, Ziegler has a Chicago office at 1 S. Wacker. According to the city's planning department, the TIF subsidy convinced Ziegler to move.
Business has been booming for the firm, which has more than $3.2 billion in assets. In a February 22 press release CEO John Mulherin announced, "2006 was a record year. We booked our highest earnings per share ever and earned our best return on equity in twenty years."
Ziegler will use taxpayers' money to consolidate its Milwaukee and Chicago operations in one location, moving 40 jobs down from Milwaukee and 40 others over from the other office; it'll also create 70 additional jobs. The CDC voted unanimously to recommend the $2.4 million subsidy without asking the obvious questions: Why does a $3.2 billion investment company coming off a year of record profits need a multimillion-dollar handout to move its headquarters? And are 110 new jobs, and 40 retained that might have moved north, worth the money?
The proposal underscores the capriciousness of using TIFs to subsidize the soft downtown commercial real estate market. Ziegler's move will benefit 200 S. Wacker's owner, Beacon Capital Partners, a Boston-based real estate holding company. But it comes at the expense of the Teachers Insurance Annuity Associates, the New York-based pension fund that owns 1 S. Wacker. So TIF money, intended to assist blighted communities, will wind up helping one downtown landlord at the expense of another.
Ironically, on the same day the CDC recommended the Ziegler subsidy, CPS officials called on corporations to help fund charter schools, in part to alleviate overcrowded classrooms caused by plans to lay off 270 teachers because of budget cuts. To quote the late, great Kurt Vonnegut, "So it goes."
Mayor Daley's made it clear that he thinks it's good for Chicago's self-esteem to have corporations headquartered here. In the last year the city's forked over TIF funds to help pay for the corporate relocations of United Airlines, USG Corp., and Barry Callebaut, the parent company of Brach's, which devastated the west side when it shuttered its factory in Austin.
What do ordinary Chicagoans get out of the Ziegler deal? Under the agreement, Ziegler will contribute $25,000 to a Chicago charity yet to be disclosed. Maybe Chicago 2016?
For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.