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When it comes to basketball courts in St. Louis, not every park is fair game

Jeffrey Perry doesn’t mind having to leave his St. Louis neighborhood to shoot some hoops with friends.

“It’s not the hoop, it’s the company,” Perry said as he and Calvin Lonzo played a little one-on-one in Fox Park recently. But he remembers when he didn’t have to go as far away from his home in Shaw to find a court in a public park.

“They took out Tower Grove, then they took out Lafayette, and then they took Compton Hill,” he said.

About a quarter of the city’s 109 parks have hoops — only one is south of Tower Grove Park. Their location has been the source of a long-running, and some say racially motivated, controversy, which former 21st Ward Alderman Antonio French tried to help quell last year when he introduced legislation to install four courts in Forest Park, the city’s largest.

“Many people have interpreted the lack of basketball courts as an unwelcome sign, as a signal that the group that that sport most appeals to is not welcome or encouraged to come to the park,” French said in a YouTube video he posted in September. French did not return requests for comment, and the Board of Aldermen wrapped up the 2016-2017 session Monday without taking any action on the bill.

Decisions about installing any kind of amenity in a city park, including basketball hoops, requires an agreement between the city’s Parks Department and a ward’s alderman. Removing amenities happens if an elected official asks for it.

There’s a pattern when it comes to basketball courts in St. Louis: As a neighborhood begins to gentrify, complaints start coming in to aldermen about cussing and drinking. That’s what happened in 1997, when then-Mayor Clarence Harmon removed the basketball hoops from Lafayette Park at the request of 6th Ward Alderman Marit Clark. She told the St. Louis Post-Dispatchthat she “wanted the basketball players to behave in such a way that families feel comfortable coming to Lafayette Park.”

The most recent example is Tilles Park in southwest St. Louis. In 2014, neighbors began circulating a petition to get the hoops removed, saying foul language was bothering kids trying to play on the playground. Alderman Joe Vaccaro, D-23rd Ward, found a compromise: Using money from a bond issue, he moved the court up the hill and away from the playground.

“Had the language stayed there, and the money not been available, it’s more than a good chance that we probably would have taken them out,” Vaccaro said.

But he fiercely rejected the idea that it was racially motivated.

“What it is is a certain age group that likes to play, in their teens and 20s, it’s M-F this, and M-F that, and you whatever, and this and that. The language is just foul,” Vaccaro said. “I don’t think anyone has ever sent me any email telling me that, ‘Gee, we have a certain group of people playing basketball and I just don’t want to see them.’”

Race and basketball

Credit Erica Hunzinger | St. Louis Public Radio
Officials with St. Louis Public Schools removed the nets and hoops from backboards at Mullanphy School in the Shaw neighborhood after neighbors complained about language and noise.

French isn’t the only person who sees racism in where the hoops are and aren’t.

There’s been a basketball net in the parking lot of Compton Heights Baptist Church since the late 1980s. Pastor Wendell Sapp said he’d never stopped to consider why the portable hoop was so popular, even though his church is about a mile from Tower Grove Park. 

“I think it probably has to do with the fact that a basketball goal attracts a number of 14- to 30-year-old black males,” Sapp said. “And I just don’t think that parks are necessarily looking for something that attracts that particular crowd.”

Sapp said he’ll occasionally take the hoop down if players don’t pick up their trash, or get too loud for the neighbors. He said if complaints got really bad, he’d only bring it out if someone was around to supervise, but he’d never remove it permanently.

Michael Bierman and his 8-year-old son, Benny, may use Sapp’s hoop soon. A few weeks ago, Benny wanted to practice his skills.

“So we came home, got our ball, and then just sort of paused and thought, ‘Well, wait a minute, where are the courts in Tower Grove Park?’ and realized there weren’t any,” Bierman said. “I don’t know why there aren’t courts, but it seems to be racism to me.”

The city removed the hoops from the park in the late 1990s because the asphalt court had crumbled beyond repair, Tower Grove Park Development Director Brigid Flynn said. But they could come back, because the park is working on a new master plan.

Perry, who was using Fox Park’s court, hopes that happens. A view of the Fox Park basketball courts in April 2017.

A view of the Fox Park basketball courts in April 2017.
Credit Paul Sableman | Flickr
A view of the Fox Park basketball courts.

“Well, I guess people will be concerned, but we live in a diversity neighborhood, you know, and they have the tennis courts, have the walkers, the jogger, the dog walkers, Peeping Toms, whatever. I think they should at least consider it,” he said.

Vaccaro wants his colleagues to do more than simply consider adding hoops, and plans to introduce legislation soon that would require more courts in more parks.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.