My fourth stop on the 12Parks in 12Weeks Tour was Columbus Park, which is located in the Austin Community on the West Side of Chicago at Central and Jackson. On the surface, the Austin community is suffering from the same problems as all underserved Chicago communities—litter, drugs, poverty, etc. But if a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and I truly believe it is, Chicago is only as strong as the Austin community. I went to Austin to spread love, learn, play ball, and interact with the people. It's all about spreading kindness, which is what this tour is really about—interacting with people in other communities and expanding relationships among each other. Interacting with people in areas outside of my neighborhood and getting to know them doesn't cost anything, but I've learned that it is really powerful. I call this activism in motion.
I figured since Columbus Park is on the west side of Chicago, I'd test out the new Kobe Bryant IX EM Shoes. My reasoning was that Kobe plays on the West Coast, and since I was headed to Columbus Park on the West Side, it made sense.
After a hectic week, it was a relief to get back on the court and put it all behind me. This week, I made the cover of the Red Eye and I had the pleasure to hang out with Russell Simmons—yeah, Russell Simmons, the founder of Def Jam. I pitched him on the My Block, My Hood, My City initiative. He seemed interested in learning what it was about, so I hope it works out. My spark is growing. I haven't gotten to where I need to be, but I just have to keep fanning the sparks. Anyway, after a busy week, it was good to get back on the court for some fun.
Playing ball in different parks every week is a lot like playing college basketball. As you travel from one school to another, you play in different arenas. You play against new players and interact with fans and crowds who are new to you. Sometimes, it can be intimidating, especially in these Chicago streets, but if you're a ball player, you're a ball player, regardless. Like they say, it's about the love of the game. Someone recently asked me if I am scared to play ball in these hot spots. I recognize the feeling of fear and acknowledged it, but I still choose to move forward. Playing ball brings people together, regardless of affiliations. It's a common bond that all players share when they're on the court. It's why the parks are so important in Chicago. Keep Hoop Alive!
Today is special in the Austin area because I'm meeting up with a dear friend, Amara Enyia. Amara is running for Mayor of Chicago and has been a supporter of the My Block, My Hood, My City initiative since day one. We've spent many nights in different mom-and-pop restaurants, talking about Chicago and our shared belief that there is a greater need for interconnectivity. She's quite impressive—Amara has a PHD in Educational Policy and is the Executive Director of Austin Coming Together, a community group on the west side. Did I mention that she runs seven miles a day, speaks Igbo, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English?! Oh, yeah, she graduated from Champaign's Law School. She certainly has the ideas and qualifications for office!
Disgusted with the direction in which Emanuel was taking the city, she decided to run for mayor. "There's not one single thing that Rahm did that made me want to run," she says. "It was an aggregation of things that he'd done—closing the schools and mental health clinics—the cuts, the firings."
She elaborated, "Your values to me are the core of who you are. If your values are in line with the people of Chicago, your policies you enact will reflect that. Mayor Emanuel doesn't know what it means to have four kids and get a boot on his car. Obviously, he doesn't know what it's like to get a red-light ticket or speeding ticket, because he doesn't pay them."
Playing ball at Columbus Park was cool. I started off playing with a bunch of young teenagers, but around 6 p.m., the adults started coming out. It warmed my heart to see a little four or five-year-old boy playing with his father. I thought it was awesome to see the kid watching his dad play 32 with us. The dad stopped playing halfway through and went to play with his son, who looked bored. I thought that was so perfect. It's great seeing stuff like that—parents who spend the day doing stuff with their kids.
My jumper was feeling pretty good. While I didn't end up winning the game of 32, I was close. I have to admit that, to me, 32 seems like it's a bit too long—21 seems like the perfect length. After the game, I asked the teenagers to tell me one thing they would do to change their community tomorrow. One young man told me that he'd pick up all the trash in the community. Another teenager seconded that statement. I thought that was pretty on point. They recognized something that needed to be done and were willing to step up and do it. It's about starting with the simple things. Just because it's simple doesn't mean it's easy. It also doesn't mean that it won't make a difference in the community. Even the smallest things count and are a positive contribution. It's also true that the aesthetics of a place has a lot to do with how people behave in certain places. This sentiment was hypothesized about in the Broken Windows Theory, which states that maintaining and monitoring urban environments in a well-ordered condition may stop further vandalism and escalation into more serious crime. It's behavior like picking up trash and litter that reflects the individual responsibility we all have toward improving our communities.
After missing a shot, one of the guys cursed, "Bitch." I listened as a few guys told him that he'd have a horrible game now because he disrespected the ball. I thought that was pretty interesting.
I do enjoy the Austin community. Madison Avenue is a long stretch that depicts the real Chicago. Here you'll see everything from old school cars on rims and abandoned houses, to new condos and the United Center, all on the same strip. It's diverse environments all in one place. Austin is also home to MacArthurs on Madison Avenue, which is my favorite restaurant in the country. If you haven't tasted their barbeque chicken, yams and macaroni, you're missing out. The wall of fame inside MacArthurs features Chicago celebrities from Barack Obama to Derrick Rose. "You're not famous until you have your picture hanging in MacArthurs, close down the public schools, open up the charters." That's a little rhyme I created. LOL
All in all, I enjoyed my time in Austin. I got to meet with a good friend and mayoral candidate and play ball with some new people—it was a great week on the 12Parks in 12Weeks Tour. Next week, I'll be at Seward Park, near Cabrini Green. See you there!