Newhouse News Service
July 26, 1992
CHICAGO – Even the suburbs here have big shoulders.
Head due south from the city and you enter a no-frills realm of small brick homes with small parched lawns on straight treeless streets. These are heads-down, hard-working communities without a touch of luxury or languor.
Once the preserve of working-class whites, many of these communities in the 1980s became 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 or more percent black.
As blacks moved in, something curious has happened here and in other cities: a lot of public basketball hoops came down.
The usual reason offered by local parks boards for shutting down the courts is neighborhood complaints about loud and rowdy ball players, shooting and shouting late into the night. While the young men were usually black, white parks officials insisted it was not a matter of race but behavior.
But blacks were not always so sure.
“I’m thoroughly convinced it’s nothing but racism. That’s the reason that most of them [whites) moved out to the suburbs anyway,” says the Rev. Julius Hope. Hope is the NAACP’s regional director in Detroit, where basketball courts have also disappeared from some suburbs.
It is an issue of blacks moving in and whites moving out; of black hopes, white fears and mutual suspicion; of stereotypes and misunderstanding; of how complicated racial politics can make the seeming simplest of things.
“It’s a really sticky situation. I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life,” says Allen Sheard, the first black member of the park board in the Chicago suburb of Dolton, who is working to bring back the hoops. “It’s unbelievable that one round ball could determine the temperature for the community. One round ball.”
Dolton, which is nearly 40 percent black, closed its courts when blacks first started moving in a dozen years ago.
About half the courts were closed in neighboring Calumet City as that community went from 6 percent to nearly 25 percent black in the 1980s. In February, the village of Burnham, which in the same period of time changed from a community that was less than 1 percent to more than 16 percent black, tore down its public hoops.
Basketball courts also have surfaced as an issue in cities quite unlike Chicago or Detroit.
In Minneapolis, the rims on the baskets at Fairview Park were locked last year when older whites felt intimidated by young blacks playing there.
In Harrisburg, Mayor Stephen Reed complained of racism after residents in two suburbs proposed closing local courts to outsiders.
“I understand it’s a nationwide phenomenon,” says John Greenslit, executive director of the Michigan Recreation and Park Association.
Perhaps nowhere, though, has it been so persistent and public an issue as in Chicago’s south suburbs, which have become the choice of most blacks who leave the city.
Dolton, for example, had fewer than 500 black residents in 1980. Today in Dolton, where a house can still be had for $50,000, there are more than 9,000 blacks. That’s a shift from less than 2 percent to nearly 40 percent and pretty typical of the demographic changes sweeping the south suburbs.
Park Director Gary Koren says it’s wrong to think that the decision to close courts was racially motivated. “Something may walk like a duck and quack like a duck but not be a duck,” says Koren. “I don’t think in anyone’s heart or thinking people were saying, ‘Blacks are coming, let’s take the hoops down.’ ”
To many blacks, however, it seems the same behavior that is tolerated from white teen-agers is considered menacing when it involves blacks.
“I think it is the stereotyping of young black males,” says Lynn Swanson, a black mother who lives with her two teen-age sons in Riverdale, which has gone from less than 1 percent to more than 40 percent black since 1980.
While the park district in the north side of Riverdale recently reopened courts, there are still no hoops in the south side of town where Swanson lives and she does not like the message that sends to her sons. “They’re told they can’t do this, they can’t do that. Well what can they do?”
Dolores Whiters, president of the NAACP branch in Chicago’s south suburbs, says the stereotyping of young black males as dangerous is so pervasive that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Good kids, who have tried hard to stay out of trouble, are so routinely stopped and rousted by suburban police that they are growing embittered, cynical and more likely to become antisocial.
“They feel the resentment and figure, ‘You don’t like me, well I don’t like you,’ ” says Whiters. More broadly, says Whiters, blacks moving into the suburbs feel that just “as our people move in, certain things that normally attract us, are taken away.” The basketball hoops, she says, are a perfect example.
Ironically, it was not the black community but Dolton’s white mayor, a Republican at that, who most explicitly injected the charge of racism into the recent hoop debate. Earlier this year, at a time when he was contemplating a run for Congress in a majority-black district, Mayor J. Michael Peck said that there was an element of racism in the independent park board’s failure to have any public courts.
Members of the Dolton park board were stung by the mayor’s criticism. Yet it was only after those comments that the board moved forward on opening two courts, perhaps by late summer.
Racist or not, fear is clearly a factor in all this.
“[White] people should admit they’re afraid of blacks, because they are. They’re scared to death,” says Joe Wilhelm, president of the park board in Calumet City. Wilhelm has heard complaints from white residents who did not like blacks walking past their homes on the way to public courts. One white man complained that placing a basketball court next to a tennis court was a virtual invitation to rape.
Contributing to the problem is the reluctance, the fear, of whites to tell young black men directly to tone it down or quit playing for the night. Instead, they remain silent or complain to other whites. In either case, their resentment festers.
“Give us a time to leave,” suggests Patrick Mays, a 23-year-old crane operator who is playing ball at one of the public courts that remains open (until 9 p.m.) in Calumet City.
Calumet City, right next door to Dolton, has gone from 6 percent to nearly 25 percent black since 1980, and for lifelong residents like Wilhelm, their future here depends on whether their community is in the process of becoming truly integrated, or all black. Already, whites who fled to Calumet City years ago to escape blacks are fleeing again.
“The old saying goes that integration is the time from when the first black family moves in until the last white family moves out,” says another member of the Calumet City board, which is all white.
The hoop issue came to a head earlier this year in Burnham, a neighboring village where basketball rims were torn down at Blackburn Park.
Mayor Eldreth “Rocky” Rundlett said that ever since the park district put the hoops up, residents had complained of noise and gang activity at Blackburn, a long stretch of browning grass with a cracked blacktop, some play equipment and a baseball diamond gone to seed and stone, all nestled between a trash plant, the freight tracks and the elevated highway.
Reaction has crossed racial lines.
Garland Payne, a black truck driver, and his next-door neighbor Pete Chico, a Mexican-American state trooper, used to play at the Blackburn court all the time. But both agreed that the park was better for children without the courts, which they say attracted a loud, profane and sometimes inebriated crew of men.
Yet, Joan Mastej, a white neighbor, had no problem with the hoops. “The kids need something,” she says.