By nightfall the Shoesmith Park Little Leaguers and their parents have gone home, and the tree-lined corner at 49th and Dorchester is calm--except for the basketball courts. There a group of a dozen or so young men has arrived, and a loud full-court game is under way.
"Look out, fool," one player cries, as he blocks another's shot. "In your face."
Watching from a bench on the side, Freddie Williams, a teenager who lives in the neighborhood, apologizes for the noise. "We don't mean to be loud. You get fired up for the game. If you ask, we'll shut up."
Many locals, however, disagree. They say that some of the basketball players are foul-mouthed and rude and that their games draw boom-box-playing thugs and dope dealers who litter the park with glass, trash, and other debris.
"This has gone on for far too long; something's got to be done," says Virginia Walker, president of the Shoesmith Park Advisory Council. "If the Park District can't control these games, the hoops should come down."
The yearlong dispute--which has divided nearby residents--is similar to clashes in other neighborhoods throughout the city as well as the suburbs. The problem is that more and more outdoor courts are closing, while basketball's popularity is on the rise.
"A lot of gyms close early, and all over the city residents are complaining about outdoor play," says Richard Booker, the Chicago Park District official who manages Shoesmith as well as many other south-side parks. "In this area alone, they removed the baskets at Kenwood high school and at the Ray grade school. There's a church at 45th and Greenwood that has six standards but no rims. The neighbors didn't want them. We should be encouraging basketball as an alternative to drugs and gangs. But if the courts cause disturbances, people want them down."
If it weren't for the basketball dispute, Shoesmith would be a model park. Its four baseball diamonds, two tennis courts, basketball courts, and play lot are well maintained, and it's one of the few integrated parks outside the north lakefront.
"This is not a racial dispute," says Paula Cottone, who along with Walker oversees the park's youth baseball leagues. "Yes, almost all of the basketball players are black. But a lot of black kids play in the baseball leagues too. A lot of the coaches are black. We wouldn't live in Kenwood-Hyde Park if we were against integration. During the championship games, our teams play all over the city, and we're the only integrated team. The others are either all white, all black, or all Hispanic."
Ironically, it was because of the baseball league that the basketball controversy first emerged. "There's a belligerency on the part of some basketball players toward the baseball league," says Mark Kishlansky, who coaches in the league. "We have four divisions, ranging from age 6 to 15. Most of the basketball players are in their teens or early 20s. They see this well-organized league--with the uniforms, the adult coaches, the sponsors--and they get hostile because they feel excluded."
The biggest problem is that a few basketball players make a habit of strolling across the baseball diamonds during baseball games. "It happens at least once every night," says Kishlansky. "They'll walk right through the infield. The game stops and we wait. We don't make a scene because we don't want a fight."
Sometimes confrontations erupt anyway. On July 25, three youths who had come from the direction of a basketball court cut across a diamond during a baseball game. The players and coaches stopped the game but tried to ignore the trespassers. Then one of the youths spit on the center fielder. With that, the umpire took off his mask and walked out from behind home plate.
"Do you have a problem with spitting?" the umpire asked.
"I got a problem with you," the spitter replied.
One of the baseball coaches, also a police officer, interceded, flashing his badge and escorting the young men off the diamond. But they didn't leave the park. Instead, they stood to the side, taunting and threatening the umpire.
"The coach was scared; he didn't know if any of these punks had a gun," says Walker, who witnessed the scene. "That's all we need is for someone to start shooting. There must be 100 kids in the park."
The standoff lasted about 15 minutes, until a coach quietly asked Walker to call for more police. The spitter and his friends fled just before five squad cars reached the scene.
"Obviously, that was a horrible scene," says Arlene Rubin, who lives across the street from the park. "But can we say that happened because the basketball courts are there? You can't blame everything on basketball. To hear some people, you'd think that taking down the hoops would solve AIDS, unemployment, and the national debt."
Other residents feel there is a direct correlation. "There's opportunity behavior," says Kishlansky. "The troublemakers are there because of the courts. Take away the courts and the troublemakers wouldn't be here."
Typically the rims are taken down in the winter and put back up in the spring. But not the spring before last. "Because of the complaints, there were a few months last year when the Park District didn't put up the basketball rims," says Cottone. "And there were no disturbances." There was, however, a large contingent of disappointed basketball players, who bombarded Park District officials with complaints.
"I can understand people not wanting to have to live with a lot of noise, but what are we supposed to do with kids if we don't let them play basketball?" says Bill Patterson, who lives across the street from Shoesmith and coaches in the baseball league. "If there are problems, let's deal with them. Let's ask people not to play at night, or to curb the cursing. But to take down basketball courts is to take away an opportunity to do something constructive."
The two sides clashed at a meeting called last summer by Booker to discuss the problem. As a compromise, Booker offered to install the rims, with the stipulation that Park District employees cap the baskets at 9 PM, thus preventing nighttime play. Unfortunately, union problems halted that experiment after only a few weeks.
"The only person whose job specification authorizes him to climb a ladder and put the cap on the hoop is what we call a rigger," says Booker. "And we have only one rigger for our park cluster, which covers 25 square miles from 63rd Street to 29th and from Damen to the lake. That guy works from 7 in the morning to 3:30. To have him come out at 9 to put up the caps means big overtime."
Some residents have offered to cap the hoops themselves, saying they could sign a waiver releasing the Park District from liability. "But attorneys tell me those releases are worthless," says Booker.
Other residents say if people don't like living next to the park they shouldn't have moved in next to it. "I can see that point," says Booker. "It's understandable to want an idyllic environment, but how realistic is it? This isn't Kenilworth--this is Hyde Park. We live in a city; there's noise in a city; there are basketball players in a city. On the other hand, just because we live in a city, should we be exposed to boom boxes at two in the morning?"
As the complaints continued, Booker decided to ask residents what they wanted done. "I conducted my own informal survey," he says. "By a two-to-one margin people said they wanted to see them come down if no solution could be reached."
When word of Booker's survey hit the streets, the pro-hoopers rebelled.
"He said he did a survey, but no one surveyed me and I live across the street from the park," says Patterson. "What kind of survey is that?"
"We heard from sources in the park that they were going to take the hoops down, and we're ready to chain ourselves to the rims if necessary to stop that," adds Rubin. "That's no solution to anything."
Instead, Rubin has initiated a one-woman campaign to reach some sort of compromise.
"I'm not laissez-faire about this. I don't believe that we should let the basketball playing continue if it causes disturbances," says Rubin. "But I think we can be reasonable. I think we can come to a solution without depriving kids in our community of recreational activity.
"I've been watching this situation closely. I'm a night owl; I stay up late, so I know what's going on in that park. The kids have all been quite reasonable. The other night we had three kids playing at 12:30. I went out to ask them to stop, and they were very understanding. They are 18 and they go to Saint Ignatius. They said, 'We can't play during the day because we're different. We listen to house music and the other players listen to rap.' Well, if we had a good, strong recreational attendant at the park--who knew how to work with kids--that problem would be solved."
Rubin thinks that with a little hard work on the part of the residents, the problem can be solved. Two possible solutions she mentions are capping the hoops at nine o'clock and putting up hoops at Kenwood Academy so not as many players would come to Shoesmith.
"We've got all sorts of residents willing to volunteer," she says. "I've called the local alderman, state representative, and state senator--they're willing to help. This is Hyde Park-Kenwood; we don't run away from our problems. We're going to get this thing done."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.