Credit: Andrea Bauer

Shajuan put up a jumper from about 12 feet as his two defenders got ready to grab the rebound. There wasn’t one. The shot bounced high off the rim and then fell through.

Shajuan and his friends play regularly at the Oz Park basketball hoops, which are across a field from their school, Lincoln Park High. But earlier this summer, after a couple of fights broke out on the courts, the rims were taken down for a few weeks following school officials’ determination that they were a “magnet for trouble.” Though they’re back up now, community leaders are still talking about locking them up so no one can use them during or after school—exactly the hours when young people need something to do. Shajuan sees the move as a major overreaction.

“It was all over some trash-talking,” he says. “They should keep the rims up.”

Though crime numbers have dropped steadily in recent years, concerns about drug dealing, gang activity, and violence are very real in neighborhoods across Chicago. Residents and officials in a number of them believe getting rid of basketball hoops can help. They say that not only do fights break out frequently on the courts, but gangbangers try to recruit younger members or deal drugs under the guise of waiting for the next game.

Then again—these are places where people play basketball.

The debate over whether basketball courts attract violence—or whether they’re simply blamed because people are afraid of the young men of color they see playing ball—has been going on for years. Once nearly ubiquitous in parks and playgrounds, outdoor hoops are now limited to a fraction of city schools and fewer than half of city parks.

“We receive many more requests to install, upgrade, or replace park equipment than requests to remove it,” says Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Park District. “However, we have removed park equipment at the overwhelming requests of community members and/or aldermen.”

Over the last few weeks we followed three very different hoops controversies in three very different neighborhoods where residents and elected officials are wrangling over questions of safety, race, and public space.

In Bronzeville, community leaders are trying to figure out how to get people back on the courts after an early summer tragedy.

In Lincoln Park, officials and residents are battling over whether to restrict access to hoops in an area where nothing serious has happened yet

And in Uptown, basketball rims were taken down at a popular park after the alderman said it would help the community fight gangs. But the gang violence has continued, and some residents say the move was really about a push to gentrify the area.

Broncho Billy playlot, Uptown: The basketball rims were removed to stem gang activity, but some residents say it’s an attack on black kids who played ball there.
Broncho Billy playlot, Uptown: The basketball rims were removed to stem gang activity, but some residents say it’s an attack on black kids who played ball there.Credit: Andrea Bauer

Broncho Billy Playlot

Fighting gangs or aiding gentrification?

In June first-term alderman James Cappleman sent out an e-mail informing his 46th Ward constituents that he had taken bold action to confront violence in Uptown: he’d ordered the removal of two basketball hoops in Broncho Billy playlot, on Magnolia near Montrose.

“The police recommended this change to help alleviate accelerated gang activity in the area,” Cappleman wrote.

Many longtime park users were taken aback. “In 20 years there’s not been any recorded violence in that park,” says Anton Miglietta, a 33-year Uptown resident and father of two. In 1991 he was among a group of neighborhood residents who worked to create the park out of a vacant lot. “Yes, there’s been drama in the area around it, but that park, it’s been a real safe haven.”

The move wasn’t out of character for Cappleman, who was elected in a runoff in April after campaigning for more than four years on vows to attack crime and clean up the ward, one of the most diverse in the city. In 2007, for example, he distributed maps of the ward color-coded by what he claimed was gang territory. “Don’t you think your alderman should work with police and the community to target gang activity?” it asked. Last fall he decried what he called “a peak in crime like never before.”

When critics accused him of trying to capitalize on the fears of affluent white residents, Cappleman said everyone in the ward was concerned about gangs and violence.

Meanwhile, Uptown has been undergoing changes, adding condos, restaurants, and new residents who’ve helped make the population whiter. There’s far less crime than ten or 20 years ago, but since 2009 the neighborhood has experienced slight increases in homicides and gun offenses. In January police announced they’d made six arrests after a five-month investigation into gang and drug activity in the blocks around Broncho Billy playlot, and in June they announced 18 more arrests after a follow-up investigation. Many residents have been upset about highly publicized shootings in the area, several happening in the middle of the day.

By the time he took office in May, Cappleman had concluded the area was a “hotspot” for gang and drug activity. “There has been gang recruiting on that street and in that playlot,” he says.

He says that when the police suggested that he remove the rims, he didn’t hesitate. He’s now looking for another place where young people can play ball under adult supervision, he said. So far nothing has been arranged.

The response has been mostly positive, Cappleman says. “I’m hearing the number of children 12 and under utilizing the playlot has gone up significantly, and parents over there are delighted.”

But when we visited the park on several warm afternoons recently, it was almost empty. That’s how it’s been since the rims were taken down, according to Chivon Hobbs, a mother of two who has lived nearby for 30 years. “Now there aren’t any kids over there,” she says.

It’s also unclear which police officers recommended to Cappleman that the rims come down. Miglietta says officials with the 23rd police district, which includes the park, told him it wasn’t their idea.

The district commander didn’t return our calls, but at a recent community policing meeting, Lieutenant Robert Stasch, leader of the district’s tactical operations unit, said there weren’t many problems at Bronco Billy playlot: “The calls we get about that park are very minimal.” Stasch said he understood some neighbors had been concerned about older kids hanging out there, but “personally, I’m in favor of giving young people something to do.”

Nor have the hoop removals ended the violence in the surrounding neighborhood. In late August two men were shot, one fatally, in a drive-by just around the corner from the park. Last week another man was shot up the street.

Cappleman bristles when asked how the rim removals were helping reduce violence. “If you can show me research showing a benefit from basketball in an unsupervised setting where gang recruitment is going on, I’ll reconsider.”

He also insists that his decision on the rims had nothing to do with race, though we didn’t ask. “If you play the race card, I will not talk to you again,” he informed us.

But many longtime residents believe race is at the heart of the issue, since most of the kids who played at the park are black. “This is real clearly an attack on low-income and black families,” says Miglietta, who, like Cappleman, is white. Removing the rims “obviously hasn’t ended the problems, and we’ve told Cappleman that it will get worse because kids don’t have a place to play.”

The alderman hasn’t yielded. In a face-to-face meeting with Miglietta, Hobbs, and other residents, Cappleman rejected the alternatives they proposed, such as installing a security camera in the park or organizing residents to patrol it.

The group is now recruiting other community leaders to join them in pressing Cappleman to reinstall the rims. They’ve received a letter of support from the principal at Stockton School, which is next to the playlot, and are asking Park District officials to back them as well.

Many residents are concerned that Cappleman’s move is the first step toward getting rid of the park—or turning it into a dog park that caters to recent transplants. “We have some of these new residents who just came into the neighborhood and now they want to push out something that’s been among the residents for 20 years,” says Hobbs. “It just seems like eventually the park will be gone altogether.”

Oz Park, Lincoln Park: While school officials want the hoops removed or locked up during weekdays, community leaders and the Park District have balked.
Oz Park, Lincoln Park: While school officials want the hoops removed or locked up during weekdays, community leaders and the Park District have balked.Credit: Andrea Bauer

Oz Park

Hoops on lockdown

Oz Park is a lovely place—13 acres of ball fields, flower gardens, and wooded space in the middle of Lincoln Park. Its basketball courts are popular—whenever the weather is even remotely hospitable, someone’s usually out shooting hoops, and once the school day is over for Lincoln Park High, the courts are often packed with back-and-forth full-court games.

In June, though, all four rims were taken down.

Michele Smith, rookie alderman of the 43rd Ward, says she had them removed at the behest of Michael Boraz, the principal of Lincoln Park High, after fights had broken out on the courts on four occasions as school was let out this spring. “To keep his students safe and to send a clear message that such behavior will not be tolerated, he and I asked the Park District to take down the hoops,” Smith wrote in a note to constituents.

Oz Park advocates were not pleased. “We found out after the fact,” says Judy Johanson, president of the Oz Park Advisory Council, who has lived across the street from the park for 30 years. She noted that the police had no record of violence on the courts, apparently because none of the fights had been reported. “Our position was that the hoops should remain up and open for all of the community to use.”

The advisory council and other area residents gathered nearly 500 signatures opposing the move, presented them to the Park District, and demanded to know what on earth Smith was doing—and why she hadn’t run it past them first.

But Smith argues that the situation is more complicated than it might first seem. Lincoln Park High School has several highly regarded honors and arts programs, but “it also has some issues around school discipline that makes some people concerned about going there,” Smith says.

What she didn’t say is that while the neighborhood is well-off and white, the student body is neither. Neighborhood parents typically send their kids to magnet or private schools, and most Lincoln Park High students, commuting from other areas, are under a spotlight as they come and go.

Smith says it’s one of her goals to help improve the high school. So when Boraz, the principal, called her to say that fights had broken out on the courts and “they’re a magnet for trouble,” Smith says she had little choice but to back him. “When he said we need this to happen, what am I supposed to do?”

Before the advisory council piped up, Smith says, the community response was muted: “I did not get a storm of protest on it at all.”

Still, the petitions made an impression, and Smith agreed with Park District officials that the rims should go back up, at least until the school year. The courts were back in action by early August.

The alderman also agreed to convene a meeting to hash out what to do after the students returned. So late last month, members of the council, Boraz, a parks official, police, and other community leaders gathered in her office and agreed to a compromise: from 11:30 AM to 4:30 PM on Mondays through Fridays the rims would be locked up with a device like the steering-wheel Club.

Afterward Smith said she was “thrilled” that everyone had come together. Boraz, she said, had convinced the skeptical community members that something needed to be done to ensure the safety of young people in the park.

“He felt he needed to send a message that they had a certain measure of expectations for his students when they’re in this neighborhood,” Smith said. “But he understands where the community is coming from. And I think the community really heard what he was saying.”

Boraz didn’t return our calls. But while the Oz Park Advisory Council went along with the agreement, its members weren’t happy about it, arguing that the hours right after school might be the most important time to offer kids recreational options. They were also irked that they’d been asked to help cover the costs of paying someone to lock and unlock the rims each day.

Though Smith said Park District officials signed on as well, they were apparently not comfortable with the agreement either. By mid-September, a couple of weeks into the new school year, the rims still hadn’t been locked up. The alderman attributed that to bureaucratic delays and said the locks would be installed any day. But Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, the Park District spokeswoman, said they might not be coming at all: “We would not want to move forward without evidence of community support.”

To Johanson, the Oz Park Advisory Council president, this was hardly a disaster. “School has been going for more than a week, and kids are playing, kids are having a good time, and things are just fine,” she says. “I don’t know what to tell you. There’ve been no problems.”

Metcalfe Park, Bronzeville: A community memorial offers tribute to Darius Brown under the hoop were he was shot and killed. Nearly two months after the incident, the courts remain almost unused.
Metcalfe Park, Bronzeville: A community memorial offers tribute to Darius Brown under the hoop were he was shot and killed. Nearly two months after the incident, the courts remain almost unused.Credit: Andrea Bauer

Metcalfe Park

A shooting clears the courts

Late on the afternoon of August 3, Darius Brown was doing what he did nearly every day—playing hoops with friends at Metcalfe Park, at State and 42nd. Around 5:20, someone heading south in a white, four-door sedan fired a handgun at the court. As others ducked for cover, Darius, 13, was struck in the neck. He died that evening.

Police said someone else playing ball was the intended target and Darius was an innocent bystander. “Darius was a good kid from a really good family,” says Third Ward alderman Pat Dowell. Police have not arrested anyone for the shooting.

People in the community were shaken, but in the weeks after the tragedy, no one called Dowell and proposed removing the hoops. “Metcalfe Park is an excellent park,” she says. “In the four-and-a-half years I’ve been alderman, this is the only major incident I’ve had there.” Police echo that statement.

Dowell played basketball at the University of Rochester and remains a huge fan of the game. Yet she’s not opposed to getting rid of hoops if she thinks they’re causing problems. Last year she had two hoops removed at Buckthorn playlot, which is on a stretch of Calumet Avenue, just south of 43rd, that’s surrounded by empty lots and vacant homes.

“It had been used as a place where adults hang out,” Dowell says. “Sometimes the gangs had their meetings there. It’s kind of tucked away so there are very few eyes and ears on that particular playlot, and some of my neighbors called me to complain.”

Dowell admitted she “took a lot of grief” for getting rid of the Buckthorn hoops. “I said, ‘Go play at Metcalfe Park.'”

But some residents have complained that Metcalfe Park, while only six blocks away, is in different gang territory. And right now the problem at Metcalfe is that almost no one is using it.

Named for Olympic runner and south-side congressman Ralph Metcalfe, the park is in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood, which makes up part of the near-south-side area known as Bronzeville because it was historically the center of Chicago’s black community. The park was created in the early 1980s, on what was once a fly-dumping site, to provide recreational opportunities for residents of the surrounding Robert Taylor Homes. Taylor was one of the largest public housing developments in the country from its opening in 1962 until its demolition a few years ago.

The blocks to the north and south of the park are now full of new townhomes, condos, and low-rise apartment buildings. But Grand Boulevard lost more than a fifth of its population over the last decade, and the neighborhood to the east of State is dotted with deteriorating old warehouses and vacant lots. Police and residents say gangs remain active, their shifting boundaries a reason many kids stay close to home.

Still, throughout the transitions, Metcalfe Park had always been well used—at least until Darius’s shooting. Since then the park has been quiet, and the two basketball courts all but vacant.

“That was just one of them drive-by, freak accidents, because this had been a peaceful park,” says Michael Chavers, a Metcalfe regular who grew up around the corner, in the same Taylor building as Mr. T. “The kids used to come from other neighborhoods to play here, but it’s been like a ghost town lately.”

Dowell, police, and other community leaders say that’s why they’ve organized a “safe haven day” in the park on September 24—they want to get the word out that the park is safe for everyone.

They’ve got some convincing to do. On a clear late afternoon last week, the north basketball court was empty for a community memorial to Darius, under the hoop where he was shot, made up of several stuffed animals and a weathered posterboard covered with call-outs to “Bay-Bay.”

A lone man was shooting baskets on the other court—Jerome Briggs, who lives in a new building across the street and often brings his four kids to the park. In addition to concerns about violence, “I think after the shooting, people stayed away out of respect,” he said.

He was hopeful that they would be back soon. “The courts save a lot of people,” Briggs said, “because they’re not on the block gang banging.”