West Side Hoop Dreams

Located on the edge of the Torre de San Miguel Homes on Saint Paul's West Side, a 60s-era public housing project run by a non-profit, there's basketball court in a hollow along Wabasha Street. The court and the grassy spaces surrounding are a great example of a quasi-public space. It is not not an official city park, but nor is private space fenced off or reserved for specific property owners. Instead, it’s somewhere in between: open to anyone, not really accountable, vaguely regulated. Like many such spaces that are all around our cities, it serves a crucial function without much formal control. In the underserved, working class West Side, it is a rare place for young people to gather and play games with each other, most especially (but not limited to) the hugely popular sport of basketball.

Yet for over two years, when I used to pass by this court area on my way through the neighborhood, there were never hoops attached to the poles. On either end of the basketball court stood unadorned metal poles. It was a sad symbol of neglect of the poor and neglect of children. I would usually look over at the court on my way past the housing project and sigh.

One afternoon, in the summertime, I was heading down the sidewalk next to the court. I looked over and sighed again.

Then for some reason I paused and watched the six or so kids playing. I realized they were playing basketball.

Despite the fact that the hoops themselves were missing, the kids on the court had a basketball, dribbled it around the pole, and shot it ten feet into the air. They were playing offence and defense with imaginary baskets.

“She shoots, she scores!” I almost heard the young girl thinking, as the ball arced through imaginary hoop hanging in mid-air.

I’m often amazed at the creativity of the young, the ability to make their world fit their dreams. At the same time, the imaginary basketball hoop was a dismaying condemnation of our institutions -- in this case the housing non-profit -- to invest, maintain, and support our children.

[For a little while, someone rigged up a temporary hack, bringing in a store-bought basketball hoop and wedging it under the existing pole.]

Over a year later, real basketball hoops and backboards were finally installed on the court. Today, kids from all over the neighborhood use the court for all year long, stuff from basketball to bicycling to just hanging out.

In many public spaces, especially the informal and unguided ones, kids are always using their imagination to entertain themselves and create new worlds. The power of imagination is inspiring, but there’s no substitute for actual infrastructure, a legitimate place to play or a real basketball hoop.


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