On May 23, dozens of kids and their parents — along with a handful of city and state representatives — gathered at Burke Park in the Irish Channel to watch a community basketball league's championship game. It was a crowning achievement — not because of which team won or because any young b-ball prodigy emerged, but because of how far the park, and the community, has come since Hurricane Katrina.
For years, Burke Park has been a hub for children in the Irish Channel. Located within walking distance of a number of schools, the park often teemed with kids on the basketball court and baseball field every afternoon. Ronald Harness, a lifelong resident of the Irish Channel, says the lack of supervision was a problem.
"There was a lot of drug activities and fights in the park and kids just doing nothing," he says. "Older kids were in there, not doing the right thing, and [the New Orleans Recreation Department] (NORD) wasn't putting anyone in the park to supervise."
Harness isn't the only person who noticed the kids in Burke Park could use some supervision and guidance. Earlier this year, Jason Nix and wife Ashlee Robinson, Irish Channel residents for the past six years, began talking about starting a community basketball league run entirely by volunteers from the Irish Channel.
"There's a need in this neighborhood for activities for these kids," Nix said. "When I was a kid, I started playing school ball when I was 11 or 12 and they don't do that here."
Nix and Robinson bought basketball equipment and put up flyers advertising the league. With the blessing of Irish Channel Neighborhood Association President Ed McGinnis and several other residents, Nix set a date for tryouts and the Irish Channel Basketball League was formed.
"We saw a way to jump in here and get this started without going through a bunch of red tape," Nix says. "The gates weren't locked, so we jumped in here and started this up."
After two Saturdays, more than 50 kids showed up to try out for the newly formed league; Nix estimates that around 35 to 40 are still playing. The league has been so successful that Nix would like to do it again in a couple of weeks; he's toying with the idea of expanding to other sports and neighborhoods.
Terry Kendrick Jr., a 13-year-old Irish Channel resident and basketball league member says that before Nix and the other volunteers arrived, he and his friends would mostly just play street ball without paying much attention to rules or how the game should be played. Kendrick says that as soon as he saw the flyers advertising the league, he knew he wanted to join.
"I was excited because I've never really played for a team," he says. "It's fun meeting people and starting new friendships. It's hard because it's not a one-man game; you have to pass the ball and learn the rules."
The league has also united the community in other ways. Take, for instance, a practice on May 21: Led by volunteer coach Beau Haynes, a dozen kids lined up on the baseline to run wind sprints after organized drills. For a white man to earn enough respect from inner-city black kids that they voluntarily do wind sprints after just a few weeks seems extraordinary. But Haynes, who was born in New Orleans but raised in Indiana, says it was all a matter of showing the children that he and his fellow coaches were committed to the league.
"After the tryouts, it was a matter of building a rapport with the kids and a kind of trust level and show that you're here to help them," he said. "That was the biggest obstacle."
Harness, who volunteers regularly as a coach, says the basketball league "shows whites and blacks can work together." He points out the diversity of people that show up on Saturday mornings to cheer on the kids and volunteer their time to keep score, run the game clock and provide snacks. More importantly, Harness says, the community atmosphere has driven criminal activity away from the park and surrounding neighborhood.
"The older kids, they respect the league and what they're doing," he said. "They're not peddling drugs in the park anymore."
Maj. Robert Bardy, the Sixth District commander for the New Orleans Police Department, says patrolling the Irish Channel has long been "a major challenge" due to criminal activity that seems to pass from generation to generation. But ever since his department started emphasizing community policing with cops walking the beat and getting to know their neighborhoods, crime has started to decline. As proof, Bardy cites the number of murders in the Sixth District, which dropped from 101 in 1996 to 21 in 2008.
But apromising as the statistics are, Bardy says communities themselves and the people that inhabit them are the major factor in fighting and preventing crime. So when McGinnis approached Bardy about placing a squad car at Burke Park for security during games and practices, the commander was more than willing to lend a hand.
"Any time you offer a kid an alternative to a criminal lifestyle, that's a positive thing," he says. "It shows the positive interaction between the Irish Channel folks in the community."
This proactive approach to neighborhood crime and neglect comes from the frustration felt by residents like Nix and Harness. For years, Harness had been loading kids in the back of his pickup truck so they could play in parks in the Uptown and Carrollton neighborhoods because there were no such opportunities in the Irish Channel.
It's no secret that one of the areas of recovery with which New Orleans still struggles is its parks and recreation centers. Many parks are in disrepair and others only have been restored thanks to private donations or nonprofit groups. City Council Vice President Arnie Fielkow says NORD, which monitors 30 recreation facilities in the Uptown area alone, has been "significantly challenged post-Katrina" — including Burke Park. Its basketball courts were nearly unplayable until Hornets star Chris Paul refurbished them through his CP3 Foundation earlier this year. But even with crisp new blacktops and shiny CP3-marked backboards and hoops, it was up to the residents of the Irish Channel to make positive use of the facilities without government help.
"It is frustrating at times to see how small city government works," Fielkow says. "This is just another example of a community saying, 'We're going to do it on our own.'"
For the Irish Channel, frustration with city officials is ongoing. With the basketball season wrapped up and the next one still being organized, residents were hoping for NORD to open the Lyons Center pool. McGinnis said he got a verbal commitment from NORD's deputy director Keith Wright on May 14 that the pool would be open June 1st. Soon that date was pushed back to mid-June and then May 26, NORD sent out a press release stating the pool would not be open again until the end of the summer. McGinnis, though, said he is undeterred.Correction
In "Shifting Gears" (Green Matters, May 26), we misidentified the winner of an X-Prize Foundation competition. The winner of the Ansari X-Prize race in 2004 was Burt Rutan, a designer of radical aircraft. His project was financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Gambit regrets the error.