With last-minute reprieve, school gets chance to mend divided neighborhood

Manierre Elementary School lives squeezed between worlds.

Black and white. Rich and poor. Chicago's past and its ambition.

Walter Burnett, the neighborhood's alderman, lives squeezed between those worlds as well, and on Thursday, the day after Manierre was granted a stay of execution, he met me there.

The May day was gray and chilly. Burnett stood on the front side of Manierre and looked across Hudson Avenue at the Marshall Field Garden Apartments, two city blocks of subsidized brick midrises where, on a warmer day, it would be no surprise to see drugs bought and sold right out on the sidewalk.

"Over a thousand young people in that development," he said. A lot of them go to Manierre.

Then we walked around the corner — he stooped to pick up an empty quart beer bottle — to the back side of Manierre and looked at the big, fine homes, behind black metal fences, that lined the opposite side of Cleveland Avenue.

"Some of these people," Burnett said, "are millionaires."

And they're not sending their kids to Manierre.

He mentioned an African-American woman who lives in one of those nice homes. She pays for private school.

Like many advocates for keeping Manierre open, even as the city determined to close dozens of schools, Burnett had argued that students would be in danger if they were forced to go south of Division Street to Jenner Academy of the Arts, in the territory of what was once the Cabrini-Green housing project.

Students in both schools might look similar — black, poor, struggling academically — but they're trapped in gang-inspired feuds that go back generations.

Those feuds aren't just lore and speculation to Burnett. He grew up in Cabrini. He has relatives who still hang out in what little remains of it. He knows.

But the danger argument, he said, didn't sway Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

"Rahm reminded me of (Mayor Richard) Daley," Burnett said, recalling the previous mayor, who instigated the demolition of Chicago's public housing high-rises over similar objections. "When we tore down public housing, Daley said, 'I can't be motivated by gangs.' Rahm said, 'We can't stop progress based on family grudges.' I thought, I gotta come up with a different spin, man."

His spin: Keeping Manierre open was good for development.

Burnett believes that rather than channeling poor, black students into a school with more poor, black students, it's smarter to make both schools more attractive to a wide range of people.

"Got to change the brand," Burnett said.

There's already a public school nearby, Franklin Fine Arts Center, that has managed the kind of economic and racial integration that is luring people to move into the neighborhood, he said. It can be a model for Manierre.

"The kids get along," he said. "The parents get along. It's a beautiful thing."

But nobody knows better than Burnett that the utopian vision for this patch of the Near North Side can't be simply spun into reality.