By Ben Joravsky

By now the fight for a basketball court in the Unity Playlot should be over and the community defeated–its spunky little battle nothing more than a curious footnote to the strange politics of Logan Square. After all, the powerful people who matter most–35th Ward alderman Vilma Colom and Park District superintendent Forrest Claypool–are against the court. It doesn’t matter that almost every nearby resident of every age and ethnicity as well as police and YMCA leaders want the court, or that dozens of kids are looking for a place to play. As one Park District official explained, “It comes down to this–Vilma doesn’t want it, so it’s not gonna happen.”

And yet the fight for the court–now heading into its third year–continues, a legendary neighborhood crusade that’s been the subject of marches, rallies, meetings, and a protest song. If the residents keep it up–and they vow to never give in–they might even win, for sooner or later Mayor Daley might have to intervene, if only to keep his Park District from looking foolish. “The Park District’s not making sense,” says Ashley Dearborn, a key leader of the effort. “How can they be against a park? How can they say no to basketball?”

The dispute goes back to the mid-80s, when local residents began pressing Park District officials to transform the seedy, trash-filled play lot (then named “Playlot 293”) and crumbling municipal parking lot at 2666 N. Kimball into something much nicer. At the urging of Park District officials, residents formed the Unity Park Advisory Council and began holding hearings to design a plan. After months of meetings and hours of debate, they overwhelmingly voted to keep the play lot and turn a portion of the parking lot into a basketball court. “The idea was to have something for kids of all ages,” says Dearborn.

The Park District approved the plan, appropriated money to implement it, and was set to hire a contractor in the spring of 1995 when the newly elected Colom halted the process. There was, she said, a silent majority of seniors and young mothers who opposed the courts for fear they would attract gangbangers. “Tots and teenagers don’t mix,” she told me at the time. “It would be dangerous if courts went up.”

Many residents agree that teenagers can be loud, crude, and intimidating. But they do exist, and if they can’t play basketball in their free time, they’ll just do something else–probably something less constructive. So as long as responsible adults are watching, why not let them play?

But Colom refused to budge, and soon observers were wondering if her opposition wasn’t personal. As Colom herself often noted, several key members of the advisory council had supported other candidates in the ’95 aldermanic election (indeed, one of the council’s most active members, Marja Stoll, ran against Colom in that campaign). Colom accused the group of being disrespectful to her at one of their meetings, saying that several members wore “No to Colom” armbands (group members deny it). Everybody knew that by opposing the court she was sending a strong signal: nothing would happen in the 35th Ward without her consent.

Park District officials were in a quandary. If they went with Colom they’d break a promise and look like they were deserting the community as soon as things got a little rough. If they kept their word they’d antagonize Colom–and they might need her support someday.

By the fall of 1995 they’d decided to side with Colom. “There hadn’t been an alderman in the ward when we approved the plan,” one official explained. (The ward was recently redistricted as a result of a federal lawsuit.) “There’s a new set of circumstances now. And when a community’s divided, the alderman gets the deciding vote. The residents will just have to accommodate themselves to the alderman’s plans.”

By early 1996 the fight showed no sign of abating. Residents picketed Colom’s office, wrote letters to editors, and badgered reporters from both downtown dailies into covering their story. They even wrote a song, “Meet Me at Unity Playlot.” One stanza goes: “The people voted for a basketball court / The alderman opposed their plan / The Park District turned its back on the children / To stroke the ego of the political clan.”

Last summer Colom called for picnic tables to be installed on the recently paved (courtesy of the Park District) asphalt lot where the basketball court was to go. But when work crews came to install the tables, they were blocked by nearly 100 residents, who vowed to “lie in front of the bulldozers if we have to.” The protest coverage in the Tribune and Sun-Times put the Park District on the spot again. For although it’s true that Park District officials generally side with an alderman on local matters, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. In recent years, for instance, Claypool blocked Alderman Billy Ocasio’s efforts to erect a statue in Humboldt Park honoring a Puerto Rican nationalist. And Mayor Daley has overruled local aldermen on various zoning, taxing, and development issues. “After that protest the Park District backed off a bit and called for the alderman to work with us,” says Dearborn.

This past February Colom met with the advisory council, but it was hardly the conciliatory meeting Park District officials wanted. Colom came before the council and sternly warned them not to raise a peep of protest or even ask a question. “I will walk out,” she said. “I didn’t get elected to be popular. Sometimes we have to make decisions that are not popular.”

The problem with the issue, she continued, was that too many “adults are getting emotional….I can’t get emotional. I have to see the larger picture.” She said she’d survey residents about the park, and only after the results were tabulated would she comment on whether she would support basketball or even answer residents’ questions. With that she left the meeting.

Since then Colom hasn’t met with the council or released the results of her study, and she generally avoids commenting on the matter (she didn’t return phone calls). She did tell a reporter on a local cable show that she would support portable hoops, provided they were policed by park and local school officials.

In the meantime the Logan Square Neighborhood Association bought two adjustable portable rims, which members of the advisory council have been setting out on weekends on the old parking lot. Last Saturday council members rolled the rims out of a nearby garage at about ten o’clock in the morning, while Dearborn and others spent a half hour in the hot sun sweeping away the debris left from all the firecrackers ignited the night before. By noon there were half-court games going on both ends of the court, supervised by Dearborn and Charles Perez Golbert, a lawyer who lives nearby. “We always make sure the little ones get to play–if necessary, we’ll have the big guys break up a full-court game so everyone gets a chance,” says Golbert. “There’s always at least two adults supervising.”

By noon the benches at the play lot were filled with mothers sitting next to strollers. Little kids scampered across the monkey bars. At one end of the court three teenagers scrambled after the ball; at the other end six kids played a heated game of three on three. “I say to Alderman Colom, if you aren’t going to let us have these baskets, at least show up to clean up the area,” says Golbert. “But I didn’t see Vilma here at ten in the morning. She can’t have it two ways–she can’t tell us what to put here and then not get involved.”

The star of this particular Saturday was Kimberly, an eight-year-old with a devilishly quick crossover dribble. “I play here every day I can,” she said. “I’m not afraid of playing against boys. I’ve been playing since I saw the game on TV. I love Michael Jordan the best. If I don’t play here, I don’t know where I’ll play.” As she talked, her ten-year-old brother Guillermo, nicknamed “G,” stood behind the free-throw line silently draining jumpers.

The controversy has put some middle-management Park District officials, several of whom were raised in the area and were fine basketball players in their day, in the awkward position of publicly supporting a plan they privately oppose. But Ray Vazquez, a Park District regional manager, argues, “The alderman has told us that there are many people who oppose the basketball court, and we have to respect her word because she is the elected official. She has told us that many of the people who oppose the court are afraid to speak out for fear of getting their windows broken by the kids who play basketball.”

The Park District now plans to go ahead with Colom’s latest proposal, which is to erect a series of exercise stations (such as a chin-up bar) on the asphalt lot. That project, which could be constructed in the fall and will cost about $350,000, has virtually no supporters in the area. “An exercise station may be fine for a big park where there’s a lot of space, but we hardly have any open park space in Logan Square,” says Dearborn. “We need to make the best use of what we have. Colom never went to the community with this idea. Meanwhile we have all these kids who want basketball.”

The advisory council members say they’re willing to drop their proposal for permanent hoops and continue to roll out the portables on weekends. “Amazing,” says Dearborn. “We’re giving the Park District a service, and they don’t want it. I think the exercise station’s a way to keep basketball out of here. It’s so petty–such a big waste of energy and time.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Terri Wiley Popp.