By Ben Joravsky

On a damp and dreary Sunday afternoon last month, 22 grade-schoolers gathered on a muddy field in a tiny park on the northwest side to play soccer.

As hard as the kids went after the ball, the competition on the field was less furious than the battle their parents had waged so soccer could be played there. It took them more than four months to do it, but neighborhood residents managed to transform Cragin Playground Park from a deserted and dangerous eyesore into a thriving park. Along the way they had to fight not only gangbangers but also Park District bureaucrats.

“It was amazing what we were up against,” says Eva Morales, vice president of the West Cragin Neighbors. “I think it was a power thing–the Park District wanted us to know that they’re in and they’re always going to be in and there’s nothing we can do about it. We had to be persistent and show them that we’re here too. Good things can happen, but you have to push.”

Cragin Park is located at 2611 N. Lockwood in Belmont Cragin, a community rapidly changing as Polish retirees move out and Hispanic families move in. “There weren’t any regular programs for kids,” says Nixon Carrera, who lives near the park. “It was taken over by gangs. You’d see kids dealing drugs or smoking pot. The park staff wasn’t much help. A lot of the time they’d be sitting around doing nothing but drinking coffee.”

When the Northwest Neighborhood Federation sent organizers into the community, they discovered that almost every resident had a horror story to relate about the park. “I was going door-to-door, asking people what they’d like to change most, and they always mentioned the park,” says Judy Kollins, an organizer. “They’d tell me about the gangs or the drugs or how frustrating it is to have this nice park that they just can’t use.”

In April a 17-year-old was killed in a drive-by shooting while playing basketball in the park. Park District officials responded by taking down the baskets. That’s when residents organized. “Enough was enough,” says Carrera. “We had to have some programs. We had to get the gangbangers out.”

In June about 150 residents gathered at the park and created the West Cragin Neighbors, an affiliate of the Northwest Neighborhood Federation. Marco Valencia was elected president, Morales vice president, and Amy Fitzgerald treasurer. A few weeks later the new group met with police and Park District leaders. “We wanted more police patrols and more after-school programs,” says Carrera.

The police increased patrols. But the Park District was strangely noncommittal. The park’s not large enough to justify a full-time security guard, area parks manager Jim Sifuentes told the residents. He suggested that they go to bigger parks (like Riis and Blackhawk) in nearby neighborhoods if they wanted arts and crafts and other programs.

“They promised they would send out flyers telling residents to get involved in the park, but they didn’t,” says Carrera. “They said they’d contact the schools to try and work out after-school programs, but they didn’t. Everything was a struggle, a hassle. They were moving so slow, it seemed like they always had an excuse. We said, ‘We want a soccer league for the kids.’ They said, ‘OK, we’ll start one.’ And they didn’t. Weeks went by. We decided we couldn’t wait. We didn’t want the whole summer to go by without anything for the kids.”

So Carrera, Valencia, and Jose Uriostegui, another resident, organized their own league. “This is a young community. A lot of people just moved here. We’re sort of isolated from those other neighborhoods where they play soccer–we don’t know about some of those other leagues,” says Carrera. “But we love the game. I was born in Ecuador and I played soccer as a kid. I know the game. I understand it. We figured, why wait around for the Park District?”

In August they sent out flyers. “We thought we’d get 30 to 40 kids and over 100 showed up,” says Carrera. “We never realized how many kids wanted to play.” The coaches created four teams for kids from 5 to 8 and four teams for kids from 9 to 12. Alderman Mike Wojcik donated T-shirts.

“One good thing about having a deserted park is that it wasn’t too dirty,” says Carrera. “There wasn’t a lot of broken glass or debris. It was ready to play. We got a coach for every team. We had practices Monday through Thursday and games on Sunday afternoon. And the amazing thing is that our presence cleaned things up. I didn’t see the kids hanging out and smoking pot. They just cleared out. There were adults and parents watching the games. It was a great sight.”

In the meantime, their strange struggle with the Park District began to escalate. “The old director at the park was unresponsive,” says Morales. “He wouldn’t set up programs. So we’d call downtown and ask to meet, and meetings would get canceled. It was ridiculous. Here they had people who wanted to use the park, and they weren’t working with us.”

On September 17 the residents made their boldest and most controversial decision: they sent a busload of demonstrators to picket the house of Cynthia Moreno, the Park District’s regional director with jurisdiction over Cragin Park.

“We felt we had no choice because she failed to meet with us even after she promised,” says Morales. “It got kind of unpleasant. Moreno wasn’t home but her teenage daughter was, and she must have been scared by the pickets. She started yelling at us. It shouldn’t have come to that. But the Park District wouldn’t respond.”

On October 8 the Park District responded with a letter from general counsel Joan Fencik.

“When members of your organization suddenly arrived at…and demonstrated in front of [Moreno’s] home, you not only broke Illinois law, you also broke the bounds of civility, courtesy and respect…” Fencik wrote. “All members of the community, including Park District employees, are entitled to quiet enjoyment of their homes….When your group arrived at Ms. Moreno’s home the demonstrators deliberately violated these principles. Moreover, in your effort to embarrass Ms. Moreno, you caused emotional distress to her children….Frightening children is not the way to encourage dialogue and reflects poorly on any group who does so.

“If the picketing and demonstrating are repeated, the Park District is prepared to take appropriate legal action. Under Illinois law, Section 5/21.1-1 of the Criminal Code, residential picketing is a Class B Misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail….Your group must act responsibly if it is to be taken seriously.”

Aside from the picketing, Park District officials had reasons for their delays. As they see it, the resident activists, no matter how well-intentioned, had little standing in matters of Cragin, since a park advisory council already existed there. According to Park District regulations, the advisory council was Cragin’s official governing body, though it rarely mustered more than four people for meetings. And until the advisory council requested new activities (like the soccer league), the Park District would not provide them. But West Cragin’s activists took control of the council last month (Valencia was elected president in an uncontested election), and then the central office moved on their requests.

The Park District has sent out promotional flyers, called local schools to set up after-school programs, and hired a new program director, Mike Cardone, who’s helped residents organize a Brownie troop and a football team. Park District officials now dismiss the protests as old news and praise residents for their efforts. Sifuentes and Cardone even showed up for last month’s championship soccer game between the Flames and Windy City, the two best teams in the older division.

From the start it was clear that Windy City was the faster and more experienced team. They rushed to a 2-0 lead and seemed on their way to a blowout. But to the surprise of the 60 or so parents huddled on the sidelines, the Flames–coached by Nixon Carrera–roared back to tie the game.

In the heated closing minutes, as the kids slid through the mud, the Flames’ eight-year-old goalie, Joshua Carrera, made sensational back-to-back saves to keep the game tied. But then the ball took a funny hop and bounced over Joshua’s arms; after that, Windy City poured it on to win 5 to 2.

Afterward, Nixon Carrera passed out certificates as the kids ate cookies and drank juice. “Come on, no tears, you all played great,” Carrera said, as he comforted his son and other despondent Flames. “Who would have thought you’d come this far? You’re only gonna get better. This is just a start. We’ll all be back for next year.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Soccer coaches Marco Valencia, Luis Jimenez, Jose Uriostequi, Nixon Carrera, Gerley Cabrera hoto by Dan Machnik.