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Hoops in the Hood

Principle: They'll always say, "It can't be done."

By Meg MacIver

August, 2009

In many parts of the city torn apart by violence, children are taught to fear the street.  Gang activity can divide a neighborhood and turn public space into a war zone.  For many, retreating inside seems like the only way to stay safe.

But on hot summer nights in some of Chicago's most gang-infested areas, the Hoops in the Hood program is using basketball to heal old divisions and take back the streets.

Alex Fledderjohn and Juan Francisco

Hoops in the Hood closes streets to traffic in these communities once a week in summer to create a neutral, safe space where kids can come together to compete in basketball leagues.

"The goal is to get people out playing and meeting their neighbors and crossing boundaries," said Keri Blackwell of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) who helped spread the program throughout Chicago.  "Kids start to see each other as human beings," said Blackwell.

"I disagree with the statement 'take the kids off the streets' because you end up leaving the problems on the street," explained Alvaro Obregon, an early organizer of the Resurrection Basketball League (RBL) which began ten years ago in Pilsen.  "I suggest the opposite.  Let's take the problems off the streets and leave the families on the streets."

"Every Friday in these neighborhoods, there are 200 to 500 people on the block, and it really feels like a festival, a big block party, a celebration," said Obregon.  "People who once had a sense of being from a 'bad' block suddenly feel like they can leave the house."

At first many were skeptical about the idea and feared the games would actually lead to more violence.  "People said, 'It will never work, you're going to have drive by shootings, and the kids aren't going to show up,'" said Blackwell. 

Alex Fledderjohn and Juan Francisco

"The first year we did it in Pilsen, it was scary," said Obregon.  "We were talking about getting kids together from potentially six different gangs.  It had never been done before."

"A lot of these kids grew up in communities that are 100 percent like them," explained Robert Castaneda, coordinator for BBall on the Block in Little Village.  "For some kids, this is the first time they are interacting with someone who is not Latino, or who is not African-American."

To get ready for the event, community leaders meet to decide which block will be used.  "We intentionally go to areas that are hotspots for gang activity or violence," explained Obregon.  "Then we go through the permit process, get signatures from residents, and approach the alderman."

Just before the night of the event, "organizers go door-to-door to let people know that Hoops in the Hood is coming to their block.  They also ask people to remove their cars."  Once the traffic gets shut down, "all the kids can tell it's a special day," said Castaneda.  "They all come out on their bikes or start hopscotch."

For many, attending the games would be impossible because they would have to cross boundaries imposed by rival gangs.  To get around this problem, Hoops in the Hoods partners with the YMCA Street Intervention Program, which operates a fleet of red buses to bring players safely to their games.

The Chicago Police Department is another essential partner of Hoops in the Hood.  "They are consistently present and always notified in advance of the summer schedule," said Obregon.  "Often, they'll join in to play with the kids.  We want the police to see there are a lot of good kids here."

Though Hoops is what brings people out, it's often what happens off the court that has the biggest impact on these communities.  During the games you see 30 guys just sitting on the bleachers and talking," explained Castaneda.  "This wouldn't have happened any other way."

Hoops in the Hood shows that one of the best ways to improve dangerous blocks is to confront what makes them that way.  When families come out and fill the streets to watch the games, the presence of the community intimidates the gangs, not the other way around.

"It's only one block and a couple of hours per week, but it's so much more than that," said Blackwell.  "Kids may not even speak to each other on that day that they meet, but if we're able to just introduce them, it's a step in the right direction."