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Political basketball: alderman blocks community shot

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From the outset, the plan to build a basketball court next to the Unity Playlot on Kimball Avenue looked like one of those can't-lose propositions that everyone, politicians in particular, loves to endorse.

After all, the project would transform a seedy, weed-filled parking lot into a court open to the community, with leagues and teams sponsored by the local police, churches, businesses, and the YMCA. It would, supporters say, obliterate an eyesore while providing much-needed activities to keep kids from the streets. "We thought we had a deal," says Rafael Rodriguez, vice president of the Unity Playlot Advisory Council, which supports the plan. "The Park District told us the court should be up by next spring. We were ready to go."

Then, as if from nowhere, emerged 35th Ward alderman Vilma Colom, a lone but loud voice of opposition, speaking, she said, for a large though silent majority of residents who feared the court would draw drugs, gangs, and crime. "As a concerned parent and community resident, I can't support the basketball court," says Colom, who was elected in April. "Tots and teenagers don't mix. It would be dangerous if the court went up."

The ball's now in the Park District's court, so to speak, as a can't-miss proposition has become the kind of can't-win decision that politicians hate to make. Should the Park District keep its promise and build the court, or break its vow and accommodate the alderman? "Our stand is that we don't want to make the community's decision for them," says Ray Vazquez, the regional manager who oversees the Unity Playlot. "It's a local issue; they have to work it out themselves."

Strangely enough, it's not the first time the tiny playlot at Drummond and Kimball has drawn so much outside attention. In the mid-80s residents forced Park District officials to replace the playlot's concrete cover with a softer surface. "It took months of wrangling to get them to do that," says Joel Monarch, president of the advisory council. "It was so popular they went on to do resurfacing programs all over the city."

Monarch and his council allies hoped to replicate that spirit of partnership with the parking lot project. "The parking lot's bad for the neighborhood," says Rodriguez. "It's right next to the playlot, so kids could get hurt in the potholes. It attracts gangs and garbage."

Last September the Logan Square Neighborhood Association held a forum attended by about 45 residents and several Park District employees. "We asked the people to dream," says Monarch. "We asked them: "If you could have anything on that lot what would it be?"'

The clear favorite was a basketball court, which seemed logical: come summer there are few places in the area for kids to play.

Planning meetings that followed in November, January, and March were attended by as many as a hundred people, including teenagers (the council elected 15-year-old Nathaniel Shober as treasurer) and senior citizens led by Thomas Kusnierz, a longtime resident. The Park District assigned an architect to help draw plans. Letters of support came from Maria Nodal-Acosta, executive director of the Logan Square YMCA; Ashley Dearborn, director of the Christian Care Center of Logan Square; the Reverend Danny Roman-Gloro, senior pastor of First Spanish United Church of Christ; the Reverend Rita Root, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church of Logan Square; Rosa Martinez, executive director of the Fullerton Avenue Merchants Association; and Jose Velez, commander of the 14th District police.

"I welcome the project and believe that the overall impact will be POSITIVE . . . !" Velez wrote. "I offer the resources of . . . the officers assigned to my command at the Shakespeare District in ensuring a safe environment for all concerned."

The court would be fence enclosed and built with $70,000 in Park District funds, Monarch says. A "green team" of volunteers would clean the court and call police if fights broke out. The Park District agreed to provide 20 hours of staffing a week. There would be no night games.

"We'd coordinate the playing schedule so women and younger kids would have exclusive time," says Monarch. "We wanted some open basketball, but we didn't want it to be survival of the fittest. In March we had a vote and the proposal passed 62 to 5. We thought we'd covered all bases."

One base they overlooked was politics. The proposed court falls within the boundaries of the newly redistricted 35th Ward, but the neighborhood was without an alderman for the last year or so. While the council huddled over its basketball plans, Vilma Colom was fighting Louis Lara, a 14th District police officer, for control of Logan Square politics. It was a bitter battle, marred by slurs and fisticuffs and exploited by rival politicians from nearby wards to settle their own ancient grudges. Colom won convincingly, but the nastiness has not completely faded.

In fact, Colom says the movement to build the basketball court is part of an effort to undercut her support. To prove her point, she cites a June 22 council meeting in which she received her first formal review of the plan.

"At that meeting I saw people with armbands that said "Say no to Colom,"' Colom recalls. "I thought, "I know these people--they're the ones who didn't support me in the last election. They just want to use this court to keep that fight going."'

(Other people in attendance say they saw no anti-Colom armbands.)

To make matters worse, she says she sat for one hour while the council ran through an agenda of other matters before being allowed to speak. "I was stewing," says Colom. "When I tell other aldermen about having to wait they can't believe it. They say, "You should have left.' I don't think because I'm elected that I'm God. But I am the alderman, and I don't think it's right to keep me sitting."

When her turn to speak finally came, Colom spoke her mind. "I told them that it's inappropriate to put a basketball court next to a playlot, especially when we only have one or two playlots in our ward," Colom says. "I said this is a small park and it's used by a lot of single mothers and their little children. You know how it is when big kids or teenagers come onto a playlot. They start pushing the swings. They're intimidating."

Essentially, Colom told the audience that she opposed any outdoor basketball court without around-the-clock police supervision. "Volunteers and fences only go so far," says Colom. "A lot of people volunteer to do this and to do that and when they burn out it's all over--no one replaces them. If someone gets shot and you're a volunteer, how can I hold you accountable? Is a volunteer going to be able to do something to a drug dealer? They can't take the law into their own hands. And really, what good is a fence? People can jump the fence. To be safe that court has to be supervised 24 hours a day, and they can't promise that."

Her opposition set council members aback. They'd blundered, they realized, in not showing plans to Colom immediately after the election. Colom was sending a resounding message: from here on out, nothing happens in the 35th Ward without her blessing. In the aftermath, the council leadership tried a new tack. They privately met with Colom and assured her that they were nonpartisan. But Colom remains unconvinced. "The election's still going on as far as some of these people are concerned," she says.

In recent days the council has attempted to solidify its community support to impress the Park District. They held a cleanup at the playlot and collected 650 signatures to petitions supporting the plan. "What's so frustrating is that there isn't going to be any staffing of the playlot if the basketball court's not built," says Monarch. "There aren't going to be any leagues or youth programs. Kids will still be playing basketball outside--they'll just be using milk crates in the alley."

The council passed its petitions to the Park District's general superintendent, Forrest Claypool. But Colom says Claypool has already assured her he will not go against her desires. "He [Claypool] respects my opinion," says Colom. "I know this is not making me popular with everyone. My own son wants the court. But I believe in a humanistic approach. I deal with the spirit. When I wake up in the morning I have to look at myself secure that I'm not causing problems for the people. I know there's a lot of fear. A lot of people have told me that they're against the court but they're afraid to speak up. I'm not afraid. I'll speak up for them. I told Claypool, "I'll get blamed for what happens here. I can take the heat."'

For his part, regional manager Ray Vazquez says the Park District probably will side with the alderman. "I hope they can work out a compromise, which we will be glad to support," says Vazquez. "I respect what the council has done, but I just don't see us going against the alderman--that would be crazy," says Vazquez. "She was elected by the people. So you have to figure she knows what the people want."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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