The two backboards behind Hanson Park School bear a message in black letters from freevibe.com, a drug education Web site: “Basketball–”the anti-drug.”
But the rims on both backboards have been sawed in half.
“We didn’t want kids back there playing basketball. If you have hoops in a secluded area behind a school, it’s not safe,” said Hanson Park Principal Susan Stoll.
The school is in Belmont Cragin, a Northwest Side neighborhood of brick bungalows and neat, tree-lined streets that saw a dramatic shift in population during the 1990s. The area went from being nearly two-thirds white to two-thirds Latino, according to census data.
The neighborhood has also undergone another change in recent years: All of its public outdoor basketball hoops have disappeared. Since 1996, hoops have been removed from three area schools.
The story isn’t limited to Belmont Cragin. Basketball hoops are disappearing from school playgrounds citywide–”ripped down by vandals and never replaced, allowed to age and fall apart, or simply dismantled by school officials who blame them for attracting gangs and crime, according to a survey by The Chicago Reporter.
Three-quarters of the 423 public elementary, middle and high schools in the Reporter’s survey lack outdoor basketball hoops. The surveyed schools account for more than two-thirds of the city’s 622 public schools. The survey does not include basketball hoops at city parks.
Citywide, the number of schools with hoops has dropped by almost a quarter since 1996, from 142 to 108, according to the Reporter’s survey. Hoops were installed for the first time at 20 schools during that period, but removed from 54.
The Reporter asked school officials why they removed the hoops, or decided not to replace them. Some staff gave more than one explanation.
The top four reasons:
–¢ Hoops attracted older teens who drank, sold drugs or caused trouble.
–¢ Hoops attracted gang activity.
–¢ Schools lacked space for playground basketball courts.
–¢ Hoops or schools were vandalized.
Hoops came down most often in nine community areas: Belmont Cragin, West Town and Humboldt Park on the Northwest Side; Uptown and Edgewater on the North Side; Woodlawn, Douglas and Englewood on the South Side; and Ashburn on the Southwest Side. Since 1996, when the Chicago Public Schools launched a capital improvement plan to fix buildings and create “campus parks,” hoops have disappeared from three schools in each area.
Officials at Hanson Park, at 5411 W. Fullerton Ave., sawed the rims a couple of years ago because gang members played basketball and hung out on the courts in the late afternoons and evenings, Stoll said. Since then, she added, “I haven’t had as many complaints, but I’m not a Pollyanna–”we still have kids back there at night.”
Area residents agree that the courts were a draw to several rival gangs–”and that the gangs still visit the area.
“A lot of people go over there and do bad stuff–”some gangbangers go over there,” said Marcos Moia, an 18-year-old who has lived on North Long Avenue, kitty-corner from the school, for six years. “Gang members are always looking for trouble. I’m scared to get shot or something.”
The school holds organized basketball games and other sports activities for students in its field house, though most of them, and other people in the neighborhood, “are more into soccer,” Stoll said. And other sports “just don’t attract the same problems.”
Kathy Hagstrom, principal at Walt Disney Magnet School, 4140 N. Marine Drive in Uptown, said basketball has a “hanging out connotation to it.”
“You don’t hang out when you play golf but you do when you play basketball. And you can find trouble with hanging out,” she said. “So maybe it’s the nature of the people who play basketball.”
Still, many community leaders, youth and education experts, and kids themselves note that basketball is one of the most popular sports in urban America–”and one of the cheapest. They argue that cutting down rims means cutting access to recreation and fitness for poor youth.
And some believe the hoops are coming down precisely because they often draw young black and Latino men.
“When I was a young African American man and played basketball with my friends, we might get loud and boisterous, and people found it disturbing. There is a perception that if there is a large gathering of young African American youth, they are automatically going to cause problems,” said state Sen. Barack Obama, a South Side Democrat.
“What is true is that basketball is cheap,” he added. “Young men in the inner city are not likely to afford golf clubs or ski-lift tickets. They are able to play basketball.”
“It’s a real cultural slam,” said Rhonda Clements, an education professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, N.Y., and president of the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play. The 30-year-old nonprofit promotes expanding access to recreational activities and facilities.
“It would be very sad in some urban areas to take away a sport that interests a large, multicultural population,” she said.
Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan, a former college and professional basketball player, said he was saddened to see outdoor hoops coming down.
“I grew up playing [basketball] on school yards all over Chicago, and some I used to play on don’t have hoops now,” he said. “Those experiences on the courts helped to shape the person I am today.”
But some principals have genuine concerns about neighborhood violence spilling onto their outdoor basketball courts, Duncan said. “My first responsibility is to provide a safe environment for children.”
Duncan said decisions about whether to keep hoops up must be made by individual schools. “In an ideal world, these outdoor courts become centers of the community,” he continued. “And, when that happens, the benefits for our young children go far beyond any basketball skills they might pick up.”
However, when the community isn’t involved, the courts can become “a liability,” Duncan said.
In communities that lost playground hoops, ballplayers of all ages have been forced to improvise.
Rolando Muñoz, 37, loves to shoot baskets with his four kids, who are between 2 and 11. He lives across the street from Franz Peter Schubert School, 2727 N. Long Ave., and a few blocks from Hanson Park. Schubert has two shiny steel backboards. Neither have rims–”and haven’t since 1999, school officials said.
So Muñoz and his kids walk over to the school and pretend they’re shooting baskets, trying to put the ball through an imaginary rim. “We need some areas to have fun,” he said.
Young men used to hang out on the court after school hours until late at night, intimidating other children who tried to use the playground and flashing gang signs at passing cars, according to Carmen Valdez, a former resident of the area and teacher’s assistant at Schubert.
Schubert’s Local School Council eventually decided to get rid of the hoops, said Valdez, a former council member. The councils are 11-member boards of teachers, parents and residents who oversee the budget and other policies at each of the city’s schools.
“I think all the kids should have the opportunity to play basketball, but some idiots won’t let that happen,” said Valdez, now the domestic violence chair for Chicago’s Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) in the police department’s 25th District.
But Patricia Hart, Schubert’s principal, said she has no memory of the council discussing the hoops. Hart said she decided not to replace the rims on the hoops after someone tore them down in 1999.
It wasn’t the first time the rims had disappeared. “There was no sense in us continually replacing the hoops,” she said.
Losing hoops at Schubert and nearby Cragin Park helped make the neighborhood quieter and safer, according to Jack Baker, who lives two blocks from the school. Hoops were torn down at Cragin Park, a Chicago Park District property, after a 16-year-old was shot and killed there in 1998.
“The late-night activity has disappeared,” said Baker, 69. “They were attracting all these guys in their 20s. It wasn’t a children’s thing.”
This spring, the two hoops behind Disney were in bad shape, with rusted posts and crooked rims. But 13-year-old Phillip and 14-year-old Anthony still played pickup ball there almost every day.
Anthony said he had never seen any problems at the court. “There is nothing dangerous or bad happening around here,” he said. “It does not matter who comes on the court. If you want to play, no problem, you can join in no matter what age you are. There is no judgment on how old you are or how good you are.”
However, by early August, the rims were gone and the court was empty. A red, white and blue basketball net was tangled in a nearby fence. A painted wood sign hung a few feet away that read: “No Ball Playing.”
The rims “mysteriously” disappeared over the summer and school officials have not decided whether to replace them, said Hagstrom, the principal.
Disney doesn’t have a great need for outdoor hoops because 1,100 of its 1,600 students are bused in from other neighborhoods, she said.
Mark Zipperer, a member of Disney’s Local School Council, said school maintenance workers removed the hoops.
For years, the courts have drawn people who drink and sell drugs, said Zipperer, who is also president of the Buena Park Neighborhood Association, a community group that works on safety, business development and other issues in the southeast part of Uptown.
“In 1998, when I first moved in, what alerted me to problems was when I looked out and saw someone hitting another person over the head with a bottle,” said Zipperer. The rear of his home faces the playground lot.
It’s been much quieter since the rims came down, according to Zipperer.
In the past, members of the association would pick up used needles and dozens of empty liquor bottles when they cleaned up the lot once a month, he said.
One arrest, for theft, was made on Disney’s playground between July 1 and August 13, according to Chicago Police Officer Kathleen Dore of the 23rd District. She said the playground had more criminal activity in 1998 and 1999 but the whole community “was much worse then than it is now.”
The school is considering buying mobile hoops that can be wheeled outside for students to use before and after school and during recess, according to Zipperer and Hagstrom. Citywide, ten schools–”including five that have lost hoops since 1990–”now use mobile hoops.
Disney will no longer provide courts for other people in the neighborhood, Zipperer said. “If you take my car out and dent it, you’re not going to use it again.”
The hoops came down last year at nearby Joseph Brennemann School, 4251 N. Clarendon Ave., when its playground asphalt was resurfaced. They weren’t replaced because area residents had complained about people hanging out and having sex on the courts at night, said Steven Hara, who became the school’s principal this summer.
Hara said he is planning to rent the extra blacktop space and the school’s parking lot to area residents looking for a place to park their cars at night and on the weekends. Brennemann needs the money for new textbooks and computers, he said, and can do without hoops on the playground.
“For school purposes, we have the gym. For outside, generating more dollars is going to be much more needed than dealing with basketball hoops,” he said. “This school is very deprived.”
A few times a year, building engineers at Graeme Stewart School in Uptown install rims on the playground backboards for students to use, then take them down.
“It’s a headache,” said Patricia A. Turner, principal of the school at 4525 N. Kenmore Ave. But before, people kept tearing the rims down, she said. “Guys liked to come and play, but they should have been more careful.”
“In terms of physical fitness, I think [basketball] is great,” Turner added. “But [hoops] can also attract an element with gang activity and drugs, and that’s what people are trying to avoid and discourage.”
Mobile hoops at James McCosh School in Woodlawn were put away for good in 2000 because they always attracted young men who, school officials believed, could be involved in gangs, drugs or violence, said Principal Mary Rodgers.
She noted that, in 1995, two students were shot after school while standing on the playground. One died.
“The hoops attracted an outside interference from the neighborhood, and our children weren’t reaping full benefit,” said Rodgers. “They’d come around whenever they could get out there, whenever we had the hoops out.”
In early August, though, kids were playing on two basketball hoops on school property on the corner of East 66th Street and South Langley Avenue. The backboards were miniatures, about half regulation size, and the posts holding them up wobbled with every shot. One of them was propped up with a pair of sawed-off wooden tree trunks and the other was tied to a chain-link fence with twine.
From her home across the street, Dolores Cooper watches the makeshift court fill up with kids every day the weather allows. Desperate for someplace to play ball, her grandchildren put up the temporary hoops on their own last year.
“They have nothing for the kids to do here,” said Cooper. “They turned the playground into a parking lot.”
At night, men stand on the corner near McCosh, drinking and selling drugs, and forcing the kids inside, said Cooper and her neighbor Mae Williams, the vice president and president, respectively, of the Langley Avenue Block Club. But they think that’s exactly why young people should be encouraged to play basketball.
“We want [the kids] out playing–”when they’re here, we know they’re safe. We can supervise them, in case fights break out or anything,” said Williams, watching her 10-year-old grandson, Timothy Perkins, nail a high-arcing jump shot. “They need positive things to do. –¦ Let kids be kids.”
The drug dealers are going to work on the corner either way, Cooper said. “They were doing it before those hoops were up.”
Rodgers said students are allowed to play basketball in the gym during the school year. She said she wasn’t bothered by the temporary hoops, but has no regrets about keeping the school’s equipment locked up.
In 1996 the Chicago Public Schools launched a capital improvement program. In addition to building and fixing schools, the program promised to create “campus parks” that included green space, play lots and baseball and soccer fields. Campus parks are “free and open for public use,” noted a 2001 report on the program.
The program has added play lots at more than 250 schools, while 100 campus parks have been installed or are under construction, according to the report.
It does not mention basketball.
Duncan said we would not push to have basketball courts installed at new campus parks. “The thing I love about the campus parks is the green space: grass and trees growing in the inner city,” he said. Before, “some kids never had a place to sit and relax and literally smell the flowers.”
With obesity on the rise among American children, educators should encourage exercise, said Jordan Hamson, an instructor of physical education at DePaul University’s School of Education.
“Any outdoor recreational facility that we can harvest and maintain is very important,” Hamson said. “In impoverished neighborhoods, it is pretty easy to lay a surface down, put up two poles and a basketball hoop. Even if there are no nets, kids still use it.”
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 13 percent of 6- to 11-year olds and 14 percent of 12- to 19-year olds are overweight. And, in 1999, the Reporter found that four out of five of Chicago’s public elementary schools weren’t offering recess, and most were holding physical education classes twice a week or less, a violation of state law.
But basketball’s popularity is what sometimes causes problems, according to Turner of Stewart School. “All the guys love to play basketball,” she said. “They come from everywhere. All you have to do is hear a ball bouncing, and before you know it, you’ve got a crowd.”
“You see what the contradiction is: Here you’re providing a positive activity for kids, but, on the other side of the coin, by playing basketball, there is a perception that they attract kids that can be a problem,” added Constantine Kiamos, the principal of Charles P. Steinmetz Academic Centre, a Belmont Cragin high school, and chairman of the advisory committee for the police department’s 25th District.
Cheryl Chukwu suspects some of the concerns about basketball are misplaced. Chukwu is executive director of the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety, which organizes residents to address public safety issues.
She said her organization hears more complaints about teenagers smoking marijuana in play lots than gang members or drug dealers hanging out on basketball courts.
“We’re programmed to be afraid of young people,” Chukwu said. “If you’re getting riled up, playing a tough, competitive game, it doesn’t mean you’re a hoodlum.”
Knocking down hoops won’t get rid of gang activity, said Jonathan Peck, director of the Community Justice Initiative, which organizes Chicago youth to address education, crime and other issues.
“For that evening, maybe the gangs won’t come by, or they’ll go to another school, but it won’t solve the problem,” Peck said. “If there’s a problem with people grouping outside a school around the hoops, the solution isn’t to tear them down, but to organize a program where people can play basketball and learn life skills.”
Duncan believes schools are teaching these skills in supervised after-school programs that include basketball and other sports, arts, and job training. He pledged to expand them.
Last year Obama sponsored a $5,000 state grant for athletic programs at Charles S. Deneen School, 7240 S. Wabash Ave. Principal Ida G. Simmons is using the money to put up Deneen’s first two outdoor basketball hoops and a softball diamond. She hopes to have them installed this fall.
Simmons wanted to have something for kids to do before and after school. She said parents complain that their kids can’t use basketball hoops in area parks because gangs hang out there.
Simmons expects all of the school’s neighbors, including teenagers, to help take care of the new equipment.
“During the school hours, [the playground] belongs to the children who attend here. After school it’s for the community,” Simmons said. “I will stand up and talk to the high school students. I respect them, and they respect me.”
In Uptown, Simeon and his buddy Kevin were warming up for a pickup game early one afternoon in August. The 16-year-olds used to play at Disney and Brennemann schools. But, since the rims there had disappeared, they’d become regulars at Clarendon Community Center, 4501 N. Clarendon Ave. They said it was getting harder to find places to play outside.
“They think if they put up basketball hoops, they’re just going to attract more gangbangers, but that ain’t always true,” said Kevin, as people called out his name.
Simeon, a tall, thin guy who played in jeans, nodded. “If we don’t have nothing to do, then there’s going to be nothing else to do but gangbang.”
He admitted that some gang members do hang out on the courts. “When they come up here, they know that they leave all that stuff behind,” he said. “What they do before they come–”that’s their business. But, when they come on the court, they just play basketball and nothing else.”
Contributing: Kristen Schorsch and Steve Sierra. Janelle Frost, Megan Marz and Abbie Van Sickle helped research this article.