Basketball controversies | Feature | Chicago Reader

Basketball controversies 

In the name of protecting kids, there's a movement to take their sports equipment away

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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. - ANDREA BAUER
  • 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.
  • 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."

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