Four young men between the ages of 18 and 20 stood outside a small convenience store at the corner of Hazel and Montrose in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. One has a gym bag, the others have book bags, and one is holding a basketball underneath his arm. A few moments later a black Jetta pulls up in front of the store and a man in his mid 30s goes into the store as he came back to get in his car he says, “You guys sure are tall enough to play basketball.” One of the young men replies, “Yeah, we hoop.”
Thirty minutes later a white 10 passenger van arrives to pick these boys up and they set out on the 18 mile ride from Uptown to Glenview, Ill. to play basketball. On this specific day there are no young men under the age of 18, so parental permission is not needed, but when this does occur verbal permission is received before the boys leave the city.
As they travel through Chicago into the suburbs their scenery changes from store fronts with bars on the windows to houses with manicured yards. They leave behind the aggression of their neighborhood friends on congested street corners.
“In Uptown you always have to be ready to fight” said Leon Brown, 19. “It’s not fun anymore. It sucks up all the fun.”
Brown is one of the four young men that Chris Underwood, a lifelong Uptown resident and barber, takes to Glenview once a week. This initiative by Underwood is one example of several programs in Chicago and across the United States, that marry sports and mentoring in order to reduce violence in low income, high crime, neighborhoods.
“Its important for these kids to see other things,” Underwood said. “It gives them the opportunity to expand mentally and expand their game. It shows them they have options.”
Underwood said the disparities between the city park districts, specifically in low income neighborhoods, and the suburbs are drastic. A portion of this disparity comes from the fact that property taxes are used to help provide funding for park districts throughout Illinois. In the Chicago Park District’s 2013 Budget Summary it reported that 61 percent of its operating revenue was from property taxes. While in Glenview, a predominantly white, upper-middle class, Chicago suburb, the park district’s 2013 financial report said only 47.8 percent of its operating revenue consisted of property taxes. However, the average income of residents in the Uptown neighborhood is $83, 395, versus in Glenview where the average is $158,216.
“Their park districts are 10 times better than the ones around here,” Underwood said.
The Glenview Park Center has two full courts available during its open gym hours on Thursday evenings. The building that houses these courts is a two story brick structure that takes up an entire city block. Outside it is surrounded by open grassy fields and inside the courts shine as though they were just waxed. Point lines are drawn out with precision and gym rules and regulations are clearly displayed as players walk on to the court.
“It’s more organized in Glenview,” Brown said. “In Uptown it’s like street ball.”
Map from Uptown to Glenview
At Clarendon Park Community Center, where the boys would normally play basketball, there is one indoor basketball court with paint chipping off the walls and unfinished point lines. The floor has scuff marks from players constantly stopping abruptly for turnovers and the fluorescent lighting overhead appears to be dim. The floor has a dark tint to it as though it hasn’t been waxed in years, and as the players travel up and down the court you hear the constant blow of referee whistles and frustrated young men swearing because of another foul called.
“No one really learns how to play basketball,” Brown said. “You’re really learning how to fight over there.”
Brown’s twin brother, Keon, also goes to Glenview with Underwood, and said he enjoys playing in the suburbs because there’s less pressure to defend yourself.
“Up here everyone is always trying to fight,” Keon Brown said. “Out there they listen to you and let you explain.”
Rob Thompson, the owner of the 10 passenger van, said he usually transports between five to eight young men from Uptown to Glenview. Thompson said it’s good for these boys to get out of their neighborhood, but it’s not enough.
“They can’t stay out here all day,” Thompson said.
The park center in Glenview is open to the public because it is operated by the park district. However, since the boys are non-residents of Glenview they are required to pay an $8 fee, as opposed to a $5 residential fee, to play during open gym on Thursday evenings from 7p.m. to 10p.m. for high school students and adults. Underwood found out about these open gym hours through a mutual friend who had been taking his children.
Though there is no special funding for this program Underwood provides the finances for gas to and from the center, and if one of the young men doesn’t have enough to cover his entry he helps with this as well.
“I love these kids,” Underwood said. “It’s important for them to interact with different types of people.”
Though there are cultural differences between the young men from Uptown and those who live in Glenview, overall everyone enjoys the game of basketball and they get along with, and respect, each other. Even though Leon Brown has a broken hand his enjoyment of the game, and the environment, still brought him out to Glenview just to watch.
“I love basketball,” Leon Brown said. “I just like coming out here.”
Underwood began an Uptown forum four years ago after Fenger High School student Derrion Albert was murdered on the south side of Chicago. This forum was created to discuss solutions to the violence epidemic in Chicago. Groups of teachers, principals and community organizers gathered together and discuss blatant issues in low income neighborhoods.
One year later Underwood began taking young men between the ages of 15 and 20 to the Glenview park center.
“When they reach 15 or 16-years-old, there’s really no where for them to go,” Underwood said. “So they’re just on the streets.”
Though this mentoring program has not grown in massive portions, Underwood said he has seen an increase in the number of young men coming around and wanting to go with them to play in the suburbs.
“Basketball is going to draw other people, that’s just the way it is,” Underwood said. “You start off with three or four people and before you know it, you have eight to 10.”
Underwood said he has seen a change in the young men’s attitudes since they’ve started playing in Glenview. One aspect of this program focuses in on anger management, and the mentors try to help these young men control their aggression.
Keon Brown said he has seen a change in his demeanor since he started participating in this program.
“I’m more calm now,” Keon Brown said. “I’m more relaxed, and I can just be myself in Glenview.”
In a 2012 report released by the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab mentoring programs, such as this, that incorporate sports have seen a significant decrease in criminal behavior by the youth involved. During the 2009-10 school year, the nonprofits Youth Guidance and Chicago World Sports, partnered with CPS to deliver their Becoming a Man - Sports Edition program to 800 young men in 18 CPS schools.
As a result of this initiative 44 percent of youth involved in the program had a decrease in violent crime arrest, and became more engaged with school. This engagement in school grew even more the year after the program was implemented.
Father Michael Pfleger’s weekly basketball league is also a local example of how sports and mentoring can lead to a decrease in violence. Pfleger’s league consists of rival gang members who agree to stop their criminal behavior in exchange for help receiving their GED, job training, and job placement. Pfleger reported that since this program began last fall there hasn’t been a single shooting among the players.
Underwood said children in low income, high crime areas need more programs such as these.
“It is very important for these kids to be around grown ups that have a vested interested in them not doing the wrong thing,” Underwood said. “I love the way they try.”
Matthew Promisco, a Glenview mentee of program, said by Underwood is improving the quality of these young men’s lives.
“If these kids are doing nothing unfortunately its going to lead to bad activities, such as gangs and drugs,” Promisco said. “Basketball can teach really good moral values.”
Underwood uses basketball to access these young men and help them sift through their aggression. His hope for the program is that it continues to grow and more young people become involved.
“The kids really enjoy it,” Underwood said. “And they come around.”