The Basketball NIMBYs

Just under the feather boas, Mueller Park’s dark underbelly.

The 1974 plans for Lowry Hill East Park (as Mueller Park was originally known) put the basketball court on the western side, along Colfax Avenue. Two hoops were available for full-court play until they were demolished as part of a park renovation that began on May 4th, 1998. The newly renovated Mueller Park opened later that summer with one half-court hoop, located on the Bryant Avenue side of the park. Considering the events of the intervening years, those of us who live in the neighborhood today are lucky to have any basketball court at all.

Lowry Hill East Park plans, 1974.

Mueller Park hasn’t always been about free piano concerts and historically accurate ice cream socials. There was a time, as the Wedge newspaper tells it, when Mueller Park was dominated by basketball-wielding “ruffians” and sharp-shooting “toughs” raining chaos down on the neighborhood like a barrage of Ray Allen 3-pointers.

The first published complaint about Mueller Park comes from Meg and Dennis Tuthill in May of 1977, just a year after the park opened. Their concern had nothing to do with basketball. It was more their way of saying the neighborhood had too many children already:

We have witnessed children with BB guns, knives and air rifles. It occurs to us to ask where the parents are. At any given time there seems to be about 30 or 40 children playing at the park but at the very most 2 or 3 parents.

Towards the end of their letter they caution parents, “There just are not that many things for older children to do at the park.” Which seems like a logical enough starting point for what would become a decades-long push to remove the basketball hoops from Mueller Park.

Behavior in 1980 was good.

I’m not sure where our current neighborhood nostalgia for children and families comes from, because the children of the late 1970s sound like the meanest little bastards the world has ever known. In June of 1979, resident Mary Atkins describes seeing two 8 year old boys taking up sledgehammers to destroy “everything in both bathrooms.” At the end of her letter, Mary vows to  keep “watching, phoning, and getting angry until someone listens!” She would go on to become an integral part of the LHENA “Park Watch” program in the early 1980s.

What started for Mary as an act of resistance against a “massive act of vandalism” would turn, inexplicably, into a crusade against basketball. She spent a lot of time in the park–watching. Based on accounts from Park Watch, the summer of 1980 was a “good” one. Despite the reported good behavior, Mary writes another letter the following May:

Last summer, and again this spring, I have noticed that the basketball courts at Mueller Park have been completely taken over by adults, many of whom I do not recognize as residents of the Wedge. 

I have watched the younger children and adolescents from our neighborhood stand on the sideline for hours, waiting to get a chance to play on the courts, usually to no avail. Often the people that use the courts descend on our park by the carload, beer in hand, and hook up their speakers to tape players or radios and turn the music on full blast…

Mary was concerned for the plight of “neighborhood youth who would like to play basketball at the park.” So, naturally, she suggests a “petition to have the basketball hoops removed.” She ends her letter with a question: “How do we assure [the youth] a fair chance to use the facilities at Mueller Park?”

On May 6th, 1981, the same month Mary’s letter is published, there is a public meeting; “the hottest item on the agenda was the issue of the basketball courts.” Mary alleges “physical aggression by adults” towards children. Dennis Tuthill suggests removing the courts. Another resident, David Forney, advocates lowering the baskets “to discourage ruffians from outside the neighborhood.” Neighborhood hero Glen Christianson stands up for basketball, while pointing out the shortage of hoops available in the city; “Let’s not tear it down,” he says.

Outside of Mary’s incredible accusation of violence against children, which is absent from her just-published letter, there’s not one specific allegation of criminal behavior. So, what is it about these basketball players–ruffians… many of whom I do not recognize… descending on our park by the carload… music on full blast?

Oh Mary, is this all that’s left of your good intentions? Suddenly, “ruffian” doesn’t seem like such a cute word.

Glen Christianson, rim-protector.

Ostensibly this started as a quest to preserve the basketball court for neighborhood children to play basketball. But Dennis’ solution is to reserve the court for Tuesday evenings of adult volleyball. Mary Atkins organizes Wednesday night volleyball for kids (volleyball really is the antidote to basketball). Glen Christianson, legendary neighborhood rim protector, organizes pickup basketball games for adults. And there’s this excellent suggestion from the following year: “roller skating to music on the basketball courts.” Hilariously, I can find no trace of anyone ever suggesting they reserve the court for children’s basketball.

Park Watch continues through the summer of 1981. A September article announces that neighbors “have helped solve the problem about the use of the basketball court and the park.” Mission accomplished, but how?

  • Park Watch. Mary Atkins’ eyeballs are the best deterrent.
  • “They informed park police about beer drinking, dope smoking and bad language among the white and black teenagers in the park.” [italics added]
  • Family volleyball night.
It’s not just the blacks.

These teenagers, white and black, need better coaching; shooting the ball with a beer in one hand and a marijuana cigarette in the other won’t get you to the NBA. Also, did you hear about the white teenagers? We haven’t seen such a gratuitous insertion of demographic detail since Steven Prince’s infamous former renter caption (in fairness to Mr. Prince, he’s not responsible for downzoning the basketball court at Mueller Park–that we know of–but we do enjoy re-posting the image below).

Former basketballer, now volleyballer Steven Prince.

In the same article that declares victory in the war on basketball “bullies,” the Wedge reports for the first time that race may be a factor:

[Park Board representative] Hutera described the basketball players as young adults. He said, ‘I do think some racism is involved.’ But he said blacks were being bigoted also, calling others ‘honky.’

Both Atkins and [Dennis] Tuthill as Mueller Park spokesmen pointed out that racism had no part in the issue. Tuthill said the inappropriate behavior among blacks or whites drinking beer, smoking dope or using bad language in the park was unacceptable. Atkins described the problem as more the neighborhood “toughs” than the basketball players….

…. 

Another problem at Mueller Park is that it offers few facilities for recreation… [Asst. superintendent Feldman] agreed a sand volleyball court at Mueller Park would be safer and more enjoyable for volleyball than the asphalt court currently being used. He said Mueller neighbors have legitimate reasons, and not ideas coming in from outer space, about removing the asphalt. 

You thought the last word of this 
paragraph would be “basketball”

I think Mary just admitted that the problems in the park were unrelated to basketball players; I knew Mary had a good heart. It should also be mentioned that removing the basketball court and replacing it with a sand volleyball court would have resulted in no net increase in the number of recreation facilities; though I can imagine it would have resulted in an emptier, less useful park. And notice the creative paraphrasing used to ensure that everyone knows assistant superintendent Feldman has confirmed that Dennis & company aren’t all a bunch of crazed volleyball fans. The article closes with Dennis complaining about the kids being excluded from basketball fun; followed by Dennis reserving Wednesday night court-time for a children’s activity that isn’t basketball.

The neighborhood stops targeting the basketball court from roughly 1982 until 1990, when LHENA begins having one of the hoops variously hooded, capped, or locked for most of the next decade. A “vandal” (more like freedom fighter) breaks the lock off the south hoop in 1996; Glen Christianson would have been proud.

Basketball: the least of your problems.

In the summer of 1993, in an item headlined “Mueller Park Crowd Getting Out of Hand,” LHENA vice-president Audrey Johnson notes “there have been problems with noise, bad language, rowdy behavior, fires being started in the bathrooms and under trees, and glass being dumped in the swimming pool.” She doesn’t mention basketball, but it’s not hard for some to connect the dots. Notes from the August board meeting mention the fires, the glass in the pool, people being “accosted by hidden persons,” and the need to call the police to close down basketball. It’s possible that accosted by hidden persons is just a euphemism for good, hard defense; though it could also be the case that your neighborhood has bigger problems than basketball.

1995 lockdown.

The idea that basketball courts bring crime to a neighborhood is not all that uncommon. There’s the case of a 2011 hoop removal in one racially diverse Chicago neighborhood. It emptied the park, but it failed to reduce gang violence as intended. Critics say it was about targeting black kids and pushing a gentrification agenda. My favorite response to the basketball-haters is from Arlene Rubin in 1990, based on her experience living across the street from a Chicago park: “To hear some people, you’d think that taking down the hoops would solve AIDS, unemployment, and the national debt.”

The only study I can find on the topic shows that parks with basketball courts, as opposed to those without, are “associated with lower rates of violent and property crime but not disorder crime.” Basketball courts are noise generators, but at least nobody gets hurt. Now, volleyball–it’s hard to imagine anyone caring enough to get loud over volleyball.

The whole story makes me wonder if the LHENA crowd ever regretted tearing down a half-block’s worth of houses to build this nuisance of a park.

1997 renovation plans for Mueller Park.

Previous posts on Wedge history are available here and here.