Building blocks, crossing borders

Basketball and art bring Chicago neighborhoods together

CHICAGO — With summer arriving and school letting out, kids are anxious to play, have fun, relax and hang out with their families and friends. A new program aims to allow kids to do just those things, while also helping to build greater peace and unity in the neighborhood.

On June 16, the Little Village community on this city’s west side launched its “B-ball (basketball) on the Block” and “Block Arte” summer program, bringing together more than 150 local young people.

Ricardo Munoz, alderman of the 22nd Ward, told the World he believes the program’s basketball series is a leading example that will kick off a partnership between North Lawndale, a predominantly African American community, and the mainly Mexican American Little Village community.

The Little Village Community Development Corporation (LVCDC), health centers, businesses and youth groups have come together to offer young people ages 8 to 18 healthy and safe activities every Friday night for the next eleven weeks.

“This program has allowed us to bring youth from different parts of the community together, not just to play basketball, but to meet each other and begin to build positive relationships,” said Cesar Nunez, organizer of the program.

“Some of these young people don’t feel safe crossing certain neighborhood boundaries. These events allow us to create a safe space on a Friday afternoon to start the weekend off on a good foot,” added Nunez.

Torrence Jordan, 10, who is from North Lawndale and plays for the “Kildare Magics” team, told the World, “I’m here to play ball.” He said he wants to be a basketball player when he grows up.

The basketball and arts activities, hosted by families and block leaders, are scheduled to take place on different blocks each week, alternating between the east and west sides of the working-class community of Little Village.

Jesus Garcia, LVCDC’s executive director, told the World that this program is important because it is “a positive alternative for youth and families to come together and engage in creative energy and sports.” Garcia also hopes the program will fuel enthusiasm for a new park in the neighborhood. “Getting organized is the key to improving the quality of life and providing resources for youth and their families,” he said.

The blocks will be closed to traffic each Friday evening, ensuring a safe space with face painting, barbecuing and information booths on health and safety.

Maria Huerta, a factory worker and mother of two who lives on the block where the first basketball series took place, is happy that there is something her kids will enjoy. “If there are more things like sports, then they are less likely to use drugs,” she said.

Art projects will also be a part of the festivities. Children and local artists will work on panels that will become part of a larger mural.

Maria Gaspar, a freelance artist and LVCDC consultant, volunteers her time with the children. “The impact that murals have is a real part of the community,” she said. “We are starting a movement of public art that expresses kids’ ideas in order to beautify the neighborhood.”

“Instead of being in the streets, we’d rather be playing sports, especially in the summer,” said 15-year-old Farragut High School student Gabriel Salmeron.

Samuel Garcia, a youth organizer and coach of the “Big Timers” team, told the World, “We’re balling together, building blocks, building bridges, crossing borders, and we’re teams now. This is a family thing and has everything to do with community and grassroots organizing. We’re bringing back the block clubs.”

Lee Sanders, a 77-year-old African American North Lawndale resident, was at the basketball event to show support for the kids on his block. “If it were not for the kids,” he said, “I’d wear a chair out in one day.” They keep you motivated, he said. Sanders was quick to highlight the importance of neighborhood unity, noting, “It’s great to get together and be one big team.”