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Hoop Nightmares

Is the City of Hollywood practicing racism by giving lights to some sports and not others? Roosevelt Walters, president of the Fort Lauderdale chapter of the NAACP, thinks so.

It's 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, prime time for basketball at Hollywood's Jefferson Park. A dozen men are shooting basketballs at two half-court hoops. The players are a refreshingly diverse bunch, running the gamut from middle-aged white men to black teenagers to a young Hispanic dude whose two small children are watching the game.

Jim Nolan, a tall, 55-year-old man with white hair and Paul Newman blue eyes, is the group's informal coach -- as well as its most aggressive player. "You all right, Frankie?" he asks a young black man, who slammed to the ground after a failed lay-up. "Easy, easy, don't hesitate, man," he tells another aspiring point guard who holds on to the ball too long.

The game at the other end of the court is a bit livelier. For long stretches the only sound is the squeak of rubber as sneakers meet pavement. No sooner does the action end than the recriminations begin: "I didn't touch that shit!" protests one player. "Yes you did," retorts another. A half-dozen young black men in sleeveless jerseys, shiny shorts, and high-top sneakers sit on two benches facing the courts, teasing the participants and waiting for their turns on the court. A half-empty plastic jug of water sits on the ground next to them.

But just as the games are heating up -- around six o'clock -- darkness descends. Most of the players retreat to their cars. One group continues playing. But the endeavor is a struggle: Lights from the adjacent tennis courts shine in their eyes when they head to the basket.

The players on the tennis courts, some 20 feet away, face no such problem. There four sets of players briskly volley. All are young white men, dressed in polo shirts and tennis shorts, with trim haircuts. Their games radiate a certain well-heeled decorum. "Sorry," says one player to his partner, apologizing for a poor shot. "Your serve," calls another, who momentarily stops the game to answer his cell phone.

The nearby bocce-ball courts are also awash in light. These courts, used mainly by French-Canadian and Italian tourists who winter in the area, remain empty for most of the year, including tonight.

Why are the lovers of some sports provided lights in Jefferson Park -- and the ability to play until 9:30 at night, prime after-work recreation time -- while others are not? The answer to this question very much depends on whom you ask. Hollywood city officials insist they've been reluctant to place lights on the hoop courts because of the concern expressed by homeowners who live near the park. Their complaint: The nighttime basketball crowd disturbs the peace and quiet of the neighborhood.

But those who want lights reinstalled say the city's crackdown on nocturnal games has less to do with the players' actions than with their skin color. "Every indication is that it is racial," says Roosevelt Walters, president of the Fort Lauderdale chapter of the NAACP. "Look at where the lights are and where they aren't. This happens all the time. It has to do with black folks doing things in white communities."

Those who support the players note that Jefferson Park is special precisely because it provides one of Broward's few public spaces where athletics transcend race. But the dispute over its basketball courts has transformed the surrounding neighborhood into a war zone -- one fraught not only with charges of racism but with incidents of vandalism, physical attacks, even death threats. Neighbors who once chatted amicably now cross the street to avoid each other or wind up in long arguments over the issue. City efforts to mediate the dispute have only made matters worse.

Jefferson Park is a small park by city standards -- about two acres. In addition to basketball, tennis, racquetball, and bocce courts, it has football and baseball fields, a playground, and a small meeting room with bathrooms where preschool and summer programs are held. It's located in the Lakes section, Hollywood's oldest and second-wealthiest neighborhood, which extends from the Intracoastal to the beach. In fact Jefferson is the only city park with athletic facilities in the entire Lakes section, an area of 8800 homes, and one of the few public spaces where basketball is played. In 1994 while devising a neighborhood master plan for the Lakes section, a group of residents suggested the city buy privately owned land for a community center with indoor sports facilities. But the city did not want to spend the $1.5 million.

Nor is the Lakes an isolated example. Hollywood faces a shortage of park space in all its neighborhoods. Unlike newer cities such as Pembroke Pines and Weston, which still have open spaces on which to build parks and sports facilities, Hollywood, an older city, is almost entirely built-up.

 

Jefferson is lined on all sides by houses, which face the park and are separated from it by a tree-lined street. Built in the 1950s and '60s, the quaint homes near Jefferson Park are modest in size and sell for $100,000 to $200,000. Like many parts of Hollywood, the area is changing: Young families and singles are moving in, replacing elderly residents, and property values are rising.

As might be expected, Jefferson is well utilized. "Use is very high," says Dave Flaherty, Hollywood's interim director of parks and recreation. On a recent Friday evening, the tennis courts -- the only free lighted courts in the city -- are nearly full. Children race down slides. Men push their kids on swings. Joggers jog, families picnic, touch football players engage in spirited games.

Jefferson, which until recently was home to two full courts, has long been one of the hottest spots for pickup basketball in all of South Florida, the kind of place that attracts a range of players from near and far. To regulars such as Ran Henry, who lives a block from the park and has played there daily for ten years, this is what makes the Jefferson Park game so special. "Basketball is a very intense sport," says the 42-year-old freelance writer. "People want to blend. At Jefferson, you can have a pickup game with total strangers. People like that."

But a couple of years ago, some of the immediate neighbors started complaining about the games. They claimed kids were coming from Miami-Dade County to use the courts and were parking on the grass, urinating on their lawns, using foul language, and leaving crack bags and condoms all over the park. Linda Wilson, who lives just behind the park, says she could hear the thump of basketballs all night long. "They would come after midnight and play in the dark," she maintains. John Bosworth, who lives in an apartment building facing the basketball courts, says he got sick of basketball players using his back yard as a toilet. "The only thing that went on there at night was mischief," he says.

Apparently in response to complaints from residents, Christine Thrower, then director of parks and recreation for the city, ordered the removal of the hoops in March 1998. Thrower was on vacation and left assistant parks director Ken Wierliski to carry out the order. Late one afternoon when players started showing up, they found the hoops and backboards gone. Thrower, who left her job a month ago, declined to be interviewed for this story. "I'm no longer with the city," she explained. "So I don't want to talk for the city."

Even to those who lodged complaints, the city's action came as a shock. "I saw kids sitting on benches with basketballs and no hoops," says Wilson, a member of the Lakes Civic Association (LCA), a homeowners group opposed to nighttime basketball. "I thought maybe [the hoops] were down because they were painting the backboards. Nobody knew what had happened."

Denise Stanchak, a social worker who has lived near the park for 20 years and whose children play basketball there, called the city. She says she and other parents were told the hoops had been taken down for repairs. Ironically, a day after the hoops came down, the city commission approved a $14.5 million capital-improvement program that included $300,000 for Jefferson Park. When it became known that the hoops had been taken down because of perceived problems at the courts, Stanchak and others were furious. If there were problems at the courts, they wondered, why not hire an attendant to watch over the park?

The city's action took less than a day. But it triggered a battle that has dragged on for nearly two years, during which various city officials have tried -- unsuccessfully -- to hammer out a compromise between residents who favor and those who oppose night basketball at Jefferson.

A couple of weeks after she ordered the hoops removed, Thrower held a meeting in the park itself to discuss with residents what to do next. About 120 people showed up -- on a Wednesday night. Thrower said at the time that it was the single largest turnout for any parks issue she has ever seen. Right from the start, residents were bitterly divided over whether there should be basketball at the park. And whether racism was a factor in the city's actions.

Aiming for the middle ground, Thrower suggested putting up one hoop but changed her mind after residents said that would lead players to fight for game time. Two months later she reinstalled two of the four hoops. She also ordered that a 12-foot fence be built around the courts and that an attendant be hired to keep order while the courts were open. The courts were to be closed and locked at 8 p.m. nightly.

 

Thrower then sent a letter to Lakes residents informing them that she would monitor the situation before deciding whether to put the remaining two hoops back. As director of parks and recreation, Thrower had the authority to make this decision herself. Before doing so, though, she sought the advice of the city's Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. The board voted unanimously in favor of putting up all four hoops. Thrower again deferred her decision, turning the matter over to the Hollywood City Commission. Shortly before the commission was scheduled to vote, City Manager Sam Finz stepped in to try his hand at solving the dilemma. He began meeting with residents.

At the first meeting, in April 1999, more than a year after the hoops came down, Finz brokered a new deal: The city would install two child-size basketball hoops on the courts in addition to the two regulation hoops already up, add 40 more hours per week of staff supervision, and open the bathrooms. (The bathrooms had been locked to prevent vandalism, which was apparently leading players to urinate publicly.)

The détente was short-lived. No sooner was the number-of-hoops issue resolved than lighting became a point of contention. Supporters of the basketball players insisted that some of the money earmarked to improve Jefferson be used to provide lighting for the courts. They pointed to a memo from a September meeting with Finz in which the city listed the top six capital-improvement projects for the park. Lighting for the basketball courts, at a cost of $20,000, was listed fourth. Finz contends that the list was not an agreement but a proposal and that he never promised to install lights. The meetings were not taped (as are official city meetings), so no record exists as to exactly what transpired.

The Lakes Civic Association, of course, vehemently opposes lighting. In fact David Reitman, a prominent member of the LCA, is also a member of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. At the Board's October meeting, he raised the issue of lighting, despite the fact that the issue was not on the agenda. The Board agreed to support the LCA's position, which was that lights should not be installed.

In the end Finz seems to have fared no better as a peacemaker than Thrower. At the last meeting Finz convened, the pro-lights contingent showed up with a civil rights attorney and a video camera to film the meeting. Representatives of the LCA stormed out of the meeting, fearing that whatever they said could be used in a lawsuit.

"We worked and worked and worked and got a deal and then [the LCA] stepped in and ruined everything," says Henry. "We hashed it out, [the lights] were budgeted in. We will not have peace in this neighborhood until everyone goes home at the same time: the tennis players, the bocce-ball players, and the basketball players. It's only fair."

Henry's promise of continued rancor seems a safe bet. Take, for example, a recent evening a few weeks back. Henry had just finished playing ball when he ran into Tony Complo, a vocal opponent of nighttime basketball. Within minutes the two were engaged in a fierce argument. "You've latched on to something you've been waiting for since the civil rights movement," Complo yelled at Henry. "We're not prepared for lights! We need supervision!"

"A park either has basketball or it doesn't. I personally will go home at dusk every day of the week if the tennis players and bocce-ball players do," Henry responded. "We won't have peace until everyone goes home at the same time."

"They're different activities," replied Complo, who has lived across from the park for two years. "Do you want basketball until midnight?"

"Didn't you know there were 8000 other homes in the Lakes to buy? There were basketball courts when you bought here."

The donnybrook carried on for two hours solid, making far more noise than your average basketball game and ending, of course, without resolution.

But this encounter is hardly a blip on the radar screen when compared with other incidents brought on by the basketball dispute. While city officials have spent the past 20 months ineffectually attempting to broker peace, the two sides have, all too often, taken matters into their own hands.

In May 1998, for instance, an unknown man asked Complo if he was responsible for having the basketball hoops removed. According to a police report, the man then told Complo, "I should beat your fucking ass," grabbed him around the neck, and threw him into a chainlink fence. Denise Stanchak, who observed the attack, says she urged the suspect to state his views at a meeting, not to resort to violence.

 

Complo also took umbrage at a New Times reporter, going so far as to grab her notebook and tear the pages out of it. He also objected to the presence of a New Times photographer who was taking pictures in the neighborhood, spraying her with a hose as she stood on the sidewalk in front of his house. He later followed her with his own camera.

Jim Nolan, the older player who frequents the courts, says Complo began following him and other players around with a video camera in an apparent attempt to catch him smoking pot or urinating publicly. David Reitman allegedly did the same using a still camera. The two presented Thrower the results of their surveillance at a meeting.

Henry claims his role in the dispute cost him a job. He says his opponents called Tom Shroder, the editor of Tropic, the former Sunday magazine of The Miami Herald, in an attempt to persuade him not to commission a story Henry had pitched him about the park. The callers -- Shroder does not recall their names -- said they had a picture of Henry smoking pot in the park and also told Shroder that Henry was too personally involved in the story to be objective. Unnerved by the calls, Shroder decided against commissioning the piece.

In April 1998, just a month after the hoops came down, Reitman reported damage to his car and some plants. He told police he knew the motive: "Victim advised that he was responsible for the removal of the basketball hoops at Jefferson Park. Ever since then, the victim advises, he has been receiving threats of bodily harm from possibly area juveniles."

Indeed many of the neighbors and players who support nighttime basketball place much of the blame for the acrimony in the neighborhood on Reitman. A politically connected realtor, Reitman, 37 years old, sells homes in the neighborhood for Classic Realty and lives a few houses from the park. Soon after moving in two years ago, he went door to door with a petition favoring removal of the basketball hoops, according to neighbors. Less than a month later, the hoops came down.

As a realtor one of Reitman's prime motives for opposing basketball was to enhance property values. But a number of his neighbors took offense at the way he framed the issue, which they considered racist. According to four neighbors interviewed by New Times, Reitman made it clear that he considered the presence of young black and Hispanic basketball players to be a detriment to property values.

Denise Stanchak, the social worker, says she was livid after speaking with Reitman. "He said to me, 'How do you feel about the element in the park? Aren't you worried about your property values?'" she recalls. "I said, 'What do you mean? I've lived here for 20 years. My kids played basketball in that park.' This was racism. I took an oath to advocate for everyone. His attitude goes against what I do all day."

Joan LoBianco, who has lived a block away from the park since 1979, says Reitman was always talking about property values, how he wanted the park to look nice so he could sell more homes there. "He said one house didn't sell for as much as it should because of the basketball," she says. "Nobody ever complained about the basketball until [Reitman and Complo] moved in."

Reitman would not talk on the record to the New Times, despite repeated requests for an interview, though he did indicate he gave $60 to a black girls' basketball team to attend a championship game after the coach asked the parks and recreation board for help several months ago. Other than that, the most he would do is cite a letter recently printed in the Hallandale Digest in which he stated his views on the situation. The letter reads, in part: "At this time, it is my position that lights should not be added to the basketball court." He then listed his concerns.

1. Overcrowding of parking around the basketball courts.

2. The bathrooms being locked or inoperative, resulting in public urination.

3. Families and small children being intimidated by older groups using the basketball courts.

4. A severe problem with drug use and abuse within what is supposed to be a public, family-oriented park.

Supporters of the basketball players don't just object to Reitman's motives. They're also incensed over his alleged methods. Specifically they believe that he's used his political muscle to get his way.

Iris Riley, another realtor, says she met Reitman at a party and told him about a neighborhood problem of hers -- loud music blaring from the beach band shell. She claims he told her she was approaching the problem the wrong way. "He said, 'There's all these black kids at Jefferson Park, they play the boom boxes there, and I just called the mayor -- she's a friend of my family's -- and the hoops came down,'" says Riley.

 

While there is no hard proof that Reitman pulled strings with Mayor Mara Giulianti to have the hoops removed, the timing of the city's action, so soon after he began to petition against the hoops, strikes his opponents as no coincidence. Add to this Reitman's own apparent claim, to the police, that he "was responsible" for having the hoops removed, and it's clear why basketball supporters have vilified him.

There is little doubt that Reitman is, at the very least, politically connected. He contributed $100 to Giulianti's reelection campaign and frequently blasts her mayoral opponent, Commissioner John Coleman, at commission meetings. More telling is the fact that Reitman, who has lived in the city only a couple of years, has already been appointed to two key city boards in recent months -- the aforementioned Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and the New Master Plan Committee, which was formed to help decide the future of the city. Giulianti, along with commissioners Dick Blattner and Cathy Anderson, voted for Reitman. He was one of 9 people chosen out of 40 who applied for the Master Plan Committee and will head the parks and recreation and open space task force.

Giulianti denies having anything to do with the hoops being removed. "Yes, Reitman is a supporter of mine, but I have strong supporters on both sides of the issue," she says.

But the perception that Reitman has used his position of influence to jury-rig the debate over Jefferson Park continues to rankle his opponents. They see him and Complo as part of a larger movement to divide neighborhoods along economic and racial lines. Jim Nolan calls the attitude of new homeowners, such as the ones who want to bring the hoops down, "something that is happening all over America. It has to do with affluence and paranoia among fortysomethings."

Opponents, for instance, have tried to suggest that nighttime games attract gang members to the park, whose presence makes parents leery of bringing children to the playground and leads to an increase in crime. A review of police reports for Jefferson Park indicates that about two dozen calls were made to the police in 1998. Half of these involved "juvenile disturbances"; the rest concerned drugs, petty theft, or noise. This past year, with an attendant in place, there have been only a handful of calls.

Some of those who support nighttime basketball insist the city is equally at fault, that officials such as Finz and Thrower, despite noble intentions, have sanctioned a situation that is patently discriminatory. How else to explain the fact that the tennis, racquetball, and bocce courts -- used primarily by whites -- have lights, while the basketball courts -- used primarily by blacks and Hispanics -- do not?

Stanchak was sufficiently alarmed to ask Roosevelt Walters, president of the Fort Lauderdale chapter of the NAACP, to sit in on several meetings with the city. Walters questions the assertion that gang members ever took over the courts. "If they saw people drinking and doing drugs, why didn't they write down license plate numbers? It's all scare tactics, hearsay. If we're talking about a park, all segments of the community should be able to play. It gets dark a little after five -- that means someone getting off work can't play basketball. We're supporting lights being placed in the park."

John Lundin, a basketball player and civic activist, feels so strongly about the issue he hired civil rights attorney Randy Fleischer, former chairman of the Broward Human Rights Board. "Civil rights issues outweigh neighborhood issues," Lundin says. Like Henry he feels the basketball courts serve a vital purpose: allowing players of different races to mingle and to learn about each other. Fleischer says the city could face a civil rights lawsuit if it does not install lights. What the City of Hollywood is doing at Jefferson Park has a "disparate impact" on minorities and whites, he maintains. Besides the issue of racism, he says, it is dangerous for players to be playing after dark without lights -- they could easily slip and fall.

In Fort Lauderdale no park has lights for some sports and not others, says Tom Tapp, director of parks and recreation. "Everyone should have equal opportunity to play the sport they want," he says.

 

Carol Camillo, who lives several blocks from the park, feels the city is practicing age discrimination more than racial discrimination. "If you can have lights for bocce ball, which is done by older people, why not basketball? There's a feeling that kids under 18 don't have a right to use the courts."

Camillo says her two sons, who are in their twenties, used to play basketball at Jefferson Park but now play in Hallandale Beach because they like to play full court. They're not alone. About half the regular players left Jefferson Park after the hoops first came down and now play at West Lake Park or in Hallandale Beach -- which is precisely what the city wanted to encourage. Camillo is still bitter. "The city is chasing people out of this park who pay taxes in this city," she says. "Why isn't Hallandale complaining about all the Hollywood people coming to their park?"

The most damning testimony of all probably comes from Gertrude Rocklein, an elderly woman who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years. She is against basketball being played at night. Her reasoning: "After dark that park attracts a different element, an older, more sophisticated element, people that aren't part of the neighborhood." When asked if she means blacks and Hispanics, Rocklein says, "Yes. And they don't belong here."

But most of those against nighttime basketball insist their views have nothing to do with racism. They're simply concerned about quality of life. They point to the fact that a predominantly white roller hockey league that practiced at Jefferson Park in 1995 was kicked out after residents complained about parking and traffic problems.

John Bosworth, the teacher who has lived across from the courts his whole life, says "the situation has improved 100 percent" since the nighttime games ceased. "I don't want lights there."

Ed Holodak, president of the Lakes Civic Association, says of the dozens of calls he received about the hoops the day after they were taken down, 70 percent were happy they were gone. The vast majority of the LCA is against lights being installed. And Holodak insists it's not just the LCA that opposes the lights. A survey of homeowners who live on the perimeter of the park showed that the vast majority oppose lights.

One thing people on both sides of the issue agree on: The city should never have removed the basketball hoops on that clear March day. Instead the city should have placed an attendant at the park to keep order, as it eventually did. Even Dave Flaherty, the interim parks and recreation director, acknowledges that the problems started "when the city took down the basketball hoops. Neighbors saw that as an overreaction."

"You always have the issue of kids after hours making noise in our parks," he says. "We need to do a better job of monitoring the park -- that's the issue."

Fort Lauderdale's Tapp says his city has never removed basketball hoops. "You have to do the best you can to keep the courts going," he said. "That's what they're there for."

Monday-morning quarterbacking aside, city officials must now figure out how to repair the gaping wound in the neighborhood and how to solve the basketball issue once and for all. Installing lights at the courts is not an option, Flaherty says, regardless of the threat of a lawsuit. "People always threaten lawsuits," he says. "We got a stack of letters from people against the lights."

Says Holodak: "With all due respect to [blacks], doesn't the NAACP think everything is a racial issue? Bringing up the race card -- it's the type of phrase that, once you bring it up, everyone is afraid to talk."

But the pro-lights contingent shows no sign of backing down, insisting on equal treatment with the tennis, racquetball, and bocce players.

Some, such as City Commissioner Coleman, feel the only way to solve the sticky situation is with professional conflict resolution. He supports bringing in a team from Nova Southeastern University. "Sam Finz is not good at this," he says.

Officials are also considering adding basketball courts at Poinciana Park, which is just a few blocks away from Jefferson Park on Dixie Highway. But as Flaherty points out, there is an apartment building right across from Poinciana, and residents there might protest as the Jefferson neighbors have.

Perhaps the grownups should let the teenagers who use the courts most heavily solve the problem. Sixteen-year-old Razvan Kadas has been coming to Jefferson Park to play basketball, his favorite sport, almost every day since he was five years old. He lives four blocks away, on 20th Avenue and Madison Street. Kadas says all the kids who play at the park live right down the street. But most have left Jefferson at this point and play at West Lake Park or in Hallandale Beach. "Nobody got into any fights, everybody out here is just having fun," he says. "If you swear, the attendant comes right over and stops it. I think they should have lights, because when it gets dark you can't see nothing. They need a soda machine -- there's not even a water fountain here. And you can't even run the full court anymore. If this is a private park, just put private on the sign."

 

Contact Julie Kay at her e-mail address:

Julie_Kay@newtimesbpb.com


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