[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #14 in April 2014]
The “court” is brightly lit, but not in the way that evokes excitement. The light is more of a numb, constant bright. There’s the roar of the crowd, but it’s not for you or your game. You sit across from your opponent and they start by flicking the quarter toward you. It spins on its edge, making a whirring sound against the plastic surface, a far cry from the hardwood of a real court, however hard the wood grain pattern printed on the tabletop tries to convince you otherwise. Before the quarter can slow its spinning and get all wobbly, you catch it between your thumbs. A rookie might, at this point, lose composure and let the quarter fall to the table, but you’re a seasoned pro. Using your fingers for leverage, you launch the quarter in an arch toward your opponent who has now transformed their hands into a basket. Your shot’s a little wide and the quarter bounces off your opponent’s chest. Now it’s your turn to flick the quarter, to become the basket. Play goes on like this until the buzzer goes off, or rather the bell rings, and the game and your lunch period are over.
This is quarter basketball and I played it as a kid. I remember it fondly, but it’s easy to inflate it into some triumph of childhood ingenuity. While some inspired kid devised a way to chip away the monotony of the school day through an elegant approximation of sport, the game is also silly, and temporary. I imagine that many people can recall some sort of brilliant, improvised diversion from their childhood. For me, it’s huts made out of sticks and mud, plywood bike ramps and cardboard castles. For you, perhaps, milk crate forts behind the high-rise, or handball, or something else entirely.
A homemade basketball hoop is a milk crate with its bottom cut out, nailed to a utility pole. Or, in a slightly more elaborate version, a plywood backboard sits behind the milk crate hoop. Sometimes there’s a metal hoop salvaged from a store-bought set, attached to a homemade backboard. Often, the backboard is all that remains, the hoop succumbing to the battery of a summer of free throws, or a single epic slam dunk.
I’m drawn to these homemade basketball hoops, even after they’ve been abandoned by their makers who moved on to other games, or other blocks, because the hoops remind me of the self-made environments of my own childhood. Yet at this moment in Chicago, they feel more significant than personal nostalgia. Basketball hoops represent the tension between official and ad hoc infrastructure for kids and between lived and politicized ideas of childhood.
Days before the Chicago Board of Education closed 50 public schools, city officials unveiled plans for a publicly financed entertainment district in the South Loop, anchored by a new basketball arena for DePaul University’s team. Public financing of the project, slated to receive over $50 million in public funds acquired through Tax Increment Financing (TIF), has drawn criticism for sucking up so much public money at a time when public schools, mental health centers and other city resources face closures and shrinking budgets.
I live across from one of the schools that escaped the chopping block and received students from a closed school. There’s a playground adjacent to the school, and there was a basketball court. While the playground was the domain of younger kids, often accompanied by parents, the basketball court got used by mostly older kids who came on their own. Sometimes they brought younger siblings who ran around courtside or tried to get in a few shots at an open hoop while play was on the other side of the court. The court saw a lot of use, especially on warm weekends, with youth shooting baskets or playing pickup games until sundown.
Over the summer, as moving crews hauled in equipment and supplies to accommodate the new students, the playground was ripped out and replaced with shiny new equipment. At the same time, the basketball hoops were inexplicably removed. They replaced some planters that sat near the courts too, but the basketball court is now just an empty patch of concrete. I emailed the school administration and asked about the missing basketball hoops and never got a response.
While the motivations for removing these basketball hoops remains unclear, the driving force behind city investment in playgrounds is more transparent. Like the iPads sent to receiving schools, playground improvements are meant to take some of the sting out of the disruptive school closings, which were loudly opposed by families and community groups. Politicians seem to be investing further in the palliative power of playgrounds. Last year, the mayor announced the Chicago Plays initiative, which includes plans to refurbish 300 playgrounds across the city. A Chicago Park District capital improvement plan includes spending $2 million each year, from 2012 to 2016, for playground renovations. In comparison, over the course of two years, the Park District spent only $2.5 million to rehabilitate 100 basketball courts across the city as part of an initiative called “Slam Dunk.” Though the city claims, “This is the single largest basketball court renovation the Chicago Park District has ever seen,” city plans for further renovation or expansion of basketball courts are uncertain.
Available infrastructure says, “This is who the city is for.” School closings say this, and so do the playgrounds and basketball courts. Many playgrounds say, “To keep our playgrounds clean and our children safe, please observe these rules.” Often, the first rule is, “Playground for children under 12 years.” The basketball court at the school was infrastructure that was used frequently and that drew kids to the space. Now it’s not used, and the kids no longer come to the area outside of school hours.
What is the response, then, when you’re a kid turned away from the infrastructure provided by the city and the public-ish spaces created by private development?
A few weeks after the hoops were removed from the school, I was visiting a friend who lives across the street from another elementary school, one of the ones that was closed. As I was riding through the alley, I noticed two young guys shooting at a homemade hoop in the alley. In this sense, alley basketball hoops are artifacts of communities trying to meet their own immediate needs. I’m impressed at the way young people living in a city can manage to transform it, even without government partnerships, or massive real estate development deals. Still, don’t all the people and systems that comprise “the city” have a responsibility to make space that lets people, including older kids, fully and freely inhabit the place where they live? The solutions to the needs of kids in the city, like play itself, are fluid. That fluidity, and kids’ agency within it, should be a consideration as the top-down application of resources shapes the way kids play and live in this city.