Can a new basketball court help transform a struggling Philly neighborhood?
Scarce funding, too few volunteers and, perhaps above all, the constant backdrop of fear — a beloved neighborhood kid, 17-year-old Robert Reid, was gunned down on the court at Eighth and Cumberland streets in 2014 — kept the courts vacant for years.
Each summer for the last three years, Kevin Holmes has tried to get something started at the Hartranft basketball courts — summer basketball leagues like they used to have, or maybe even a championship team, like the ones whose trophies are locked away in the long-shuttered recreation center, its once-shimmering indoor pool drained and blooming with mold.
"I tried in '15, I tried in '16. I tried last year," said Holmes, 55. "These kids need the outlet, to do something positive."
Barriers included scarce funding, too few volunteers, and, perhaps above all, the constant backdrop of fear — an undeniable force since a neighborhood kid, 17-year-old Robert Reid, was gunned down on the courts at Eighth and Cumberland Streets in 2014.
This year, though, a newly renovated basketball court — with a boost from the Sixers Youth Foundation and a creative-place-making component from the neighborhood nonprofit Village of Arts and Humanities – may help do what Holmes couldn't accomplish alone: Bring the community back to Hartranft.
The renovated courts open Thursday, June 28, with a block party and, nearby at Village, an exhibition called "Home Court" that's part makeshift community history museum, part artistic exploration and part think tank — a place to reflect on the meaning and potential of a space that has been a container for the neighborhood's pride, but also a site of shared loss.
The idea is to restore not only the infrastructure, but also the civic leadership that helped build this once-thriving center in the first place — and to empower residents to advocate for equitable funding in the future.
"We weren't just going to say, 'Yay, Sixers!' This is about what it takes for a community to ask for what they need," Village executive director Aviva Kapust said.
She sees it as a vital model, particularly in light of Mayor Kenney's $500 million Rebuild initiative to improve parks, libraries and rec centers around the city: "This project is a really good example of the care it will take and the amount of time that needs to be dedicated to engaging groups in the community. Because money runs out, and the people who live in the community are the ones that are left with results. So it's about building civic power."
The Village commissioned Philadelphia artists — photographer Shawn Theodore, hip hop collective Ill Doots, and composer Michael McDermott — to work with kids and adults from the community.
Together, they attempted to document the history of the courts and shape a shared vision for the future. Their stories are told through news clippings, photographs and a soundscape of interviews, music and poetry, accessible through an online archive, or through July 19 at a listening booth (carved out of an erstwhile bathroom) in the exhibition space at 2519 Germantown Ave.
They also negotiated an entry agreement for the courts, printed on cards and posted at the entrance to the exhibition: a call for respect, inclusion, commitment and resilience.
On a sweltering afternoon in June, neighbors gathered in the space to debate which of Theodore's photos should adorn banners around the new court, and to talk about how things were and how they should be.
"We ask a lot in this place," Theodore told them apologetically. "We're asking you to unearth joy, pain, everything."
They scrutinized old photos of the playground, which was built in 1956 with an outdoor pool, and upgraded with a community center and indoor pool in the '70s with support from the Model Cities program, which infused $12.4 million into North Philadelphia.
Kathy Barnes, 50, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, pointed out the hose that she said was the sole filtration system for that pool. "My brother Tony caught hepatitis A in that pool," she said, "and that's when my mother started the protest."
It seems it's always been like that here: the simple pleasures of childhood tinged with the simmering frustration of disinvestment and the quagmire of local politics.
For a while, it was as if a new protest happened every month. Teens marched, demanding summer jobs. Women and children picketed the school board over its lack of support. Mothers marched on the center, demanding an end to Hartranft Community Corp.-sponsored clubhouses they said fostered gang activity.
"We had countless community people who did the work and fought to keep the center open," Barnes said. "As they got older and political winds changed, we were a forgotten place."
Ronald "Drag" Moore, 61, said that for a long time, they were able to make due.
"We had no money. We took the whole football team on the subway to South Philly," he said. When they couldn't buy jerseys, they screen-printed them. When they weren't allowed into a white basketball league, they called on city officials to demand integration. Then, he said, they won the season.
Moore described stuffed trophy cases inside the rec center.
"We won plenty of championships," he said. "We're not allowed in there now. Our whole history is in there."
The collaborative process is going well, Theodore said, when people tell him what he's got wrong, what parts of the story he's missing — and then set him straight.
He started photographing the area about five years ago, drawn by the monumental Hass & Hahn Philly Painting mural — but also deeply offended by how Instagrammers came for the bold, colorful backdrop and ignored the people struggling all around them. He wanted to tell the true story of the community.
>>READ MORE: Philly's Instagram-famous street photographer gets his first museum show
Working with Village on this project, he met neighborhood kids like Nasir Todd playing basketball on the court on one of the coldest days of the year. An optimistic 13-year-old, Todd is philosophical about the state of the playground.
"I wouldn't say people feel safe there. Violent stuff happens: fights, people getting shot," he said. "But I go because that's really the only park around here."
Still, Todd is hopeful that the renovation will be a fresh start.
After all, the Sixers Youth Foundation has already been working with Hartranft School, and made a big impact on the environment within school walls.
>>READ MORE: How the 76ers helped a Philly school cut out bad behavior and improve academics
There's still a lot more to be done here.
Holmes said the Sixers are contributing jerseys. But he has a long wish list: basketballs, a clock, scoring books, folding tables. He's used to storing everything at his house until game time, although reopening the rec center would be the dream.
The center is owned by the School District, which did not respond to a request for information about plans for the building. An environmental report posted on the district website tersely notes, "Pool remains closed. Full of mold."
But Kapust is looking at the project as a lever for other types of organizing. For example, she said, Village sits at the intersection of three police districts, which she said has caused gaps in public-safety efforts. She's working to convene a meeting with all three in the exhibition space, to talk about how they can cooperate better with each other and the community.
Andrew Frishkoff, executive director of Philadelphia Local Initiatives Support Corp., said the hope is that with this boost, the neighbors can be in a better position to advocate for more.
"This is a chance to build on the work they're doing around civic empowerment and broader community building," he said. "The court is one surface where that can occur."