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Purloined Playgrounds

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“Hyde Park basketball courts had remained stubbornly black as areas around them whitened and went upscale… The courts were under suspicion and the older players knew it. But discretion was of no avail. The courts were being swept away. The first to go was the most perfect court known to man. It was situated among the trees just off Lake Shore Drive, its eastern basket facing the lake. Gliding to that basket, with lake and sky beyond gave you the illusion of flight. The second court to disappear was less beautiful but much loved by its players… Shortly before the annual tournament, the backboards were taken down and carted away under the cover of darkness.”—Brent Staples, “Parallel Time”

That was the 1970s.

There are now no public basketball courts in Hyde Park.

Last summer, I was walking down an alley off of 55th street. Two white boys and a man were playing basketball inside a gated yard. In a parking lot across the alley sat six black boys of comparable age, noticeably sullen.

I went over to the black boys. “Why don’t you play?”

“They won’t let us.”

“Did you ask?”

“Yeah. They said no. Will you ask for us?”

Will I ask for you? Oh… I’m white too.

“Excuse me. I was wondering if there’s any chance we could pl—”

“No. Sorry. This is our yard. This is private property,” the man said.

I walked back over to the black boys and shrugged.

“This is private property,” one of them repeated.

“Dang,” said the youngest. “If I had a court, I’d let them play.”

“I wouldn’t,” said another. “‘Cause they don’t let us play… We should build our own hoop so when they come, we can say ‘No, you can’t play.'”

“What’s your name?” the oldest of the boys said, scowling.

He shook my hand and introduced himself as Shawn, surprising me with friendliness. “People are going to get ruthless around here in summer if there’s no hoops,” he said. “Black kids have nothing to do in this neighborhood. That’s how they get into trouble. The only other courts are at the neighborhood club and you have to pay to become a member. Then at 47th and 43rd… All the other ones have been torn down… They tried to say it was gang activity… Basketball is what keeps people out of trouble… I know… I used to be in all kinds of trouble…”

When I was a kid, way back in the 1980s, sports weren’t the only thing for kids in Hyde Park to do. On my block, we had an abandoned lot with a tar pit that softened in the summer. Mulberry trees and grape vines to eat off of; basements to break into. Rooftops to climb. Lobbies to loiter in. Gangways in which to play tag. Who needed toys and TV? We had imaginations.

The tar pit was replaced by a parking lot. Mulberry trees and vines got cut. Our rooftop clubhouses got barbed-wired. Abandoned garages were razed, gangways sealed, fences erected, and buzzer systems switched to outer doors. The block next to ours is gated off. They call it urban renewal—I call it nailing shut the window of communication between urban kids and adults, whites and blacks.

“It’s very sad.” says a woman who has lived on the block for 35 years. “All the kids used to play in the alley. Today, there’s not a kid playing there.”

Fifty years ago in Hyde Park, families used to sleep in the park on summer nights. Twenty-five years ago, my parents met watching the bongo drummers at the local park. Now it’s illegal to play instruments there. I have something for you to do this summer. Get to know the kids on your block. Invite them into your house before they invite themselves in. Find out what they need before they take it from you. In Hyde Park, to begin with, kids need basketball courts.
(Billy Wimsatt)

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