St. Louis' largest parks are getting basketball courts. Why is it taking so long?
After years of outcry, new basketball courts are scheduled to make their debut in St. Louis’ two largest parks in 2023. Both Forest Park and Tower Grove Park will see new hoops and facilities — and park officials credit St. Louis residents for spearheading the efforts and making sure their voices are heard.
Forest Park is planning to have its first-ever basketball courts in its 146-year history. Their absence is all the more glaring considering the park is filled with sports facilities, including ice skating, handball, softball, golf and cricket, to name a few.
Meanwhile, Tower Grove Park once had basketball courts, but they were removed over 30 years ago due to deteriorating pavement conditions, said Bill Reininger, executive director of the park.
However if you ask St. Louisans why Tower Grove Park, Forest Park and other city parks lack hoops, they’ll point to the persistent history of anti-Black racism.
When Noah Cohan moved to St. Louis from Seattle, he was excited to be close to Forest Park and assumed he’d be able to find a pickup game. He was surprised to find not one basketball court in the 1,326-acre park.
What he did find, at the time, was a different feature of the park: a Confederate monument.
“Those two things are not directly related,” Cohan told St. Louis on the Air. “[But] I quickly came to understand that they were both somewhat reflective of the segregated landscape of St. Louis, the ‘Delmar Divide’ in particular, and the history of Forest Park as a place that was not as welcoming to Black St. Louisans as it was to white St. Louisans.”
As Cohan learned more about the history of St. Louis and Forest Park, he and research partner John Early decided to dig deeper into the local history of basketball. This led to the creation of Whereas Hoops, a research and art project covering St. Louis’ history with public basketball courts.
Their search led them in multiple directions. While investigating Lafayette Park, Cohan and Early found newspaper accounts describing the public’s reactions to the removal of basketball hoops in 1997. “There was outcry about the fact that these hoops were being taken out,” Cohan said. “And the Post-Dispatch article that I found quotes both white and Black residents of the area, who make no bones about the fact that they understand that the reason that these groups are being taken out is because people do not want Black youth congregating to play basketball in that park.”
With fewer than one-third of St. Louis’ 108 public parks equipped with courts, residents have had to get creative with finding places to shoot hoops. When Julian Brown moved to St. Louis from Chicago to play basketball for St. Louis Christian College, he asked permission to allow ballers from nearby neighborhoods to play in the gym after his team's practice.
This led to Brown running an open gym on campus. “I was inviting guys, just throughout the community, in north county to come in and play basketball,” he said. “And I really use [basketball] primarily first as a resource, just you know, to have a social life.”
Growing up in Florissant, Tyler Small and his friends would build basketball hoops with what they could find if they couldn’t get a ride to their nearest park to play. Small said: “I had neighbors who put together a milk crate and that's how they play, just trying to find a way to [play basketball]. They use one of the electric power poles and put a little milk crate on it to play.”
With basketball courts on the horizon, officials from both Tower Grove Park and Forest Park credit St. Louisans for speaking up and being involved with the parks’ planning processes. However, these processes often move slowly and take years to reach their goals.
Last year, St. Louis Public Radio’s Rachel Lippmann reported on the new plans to get basketball in Forest Park. Since then, there has been little movement toward finalizing those plans and starting construction.
It’s not clear why these projects haven’t progressed further. St. Louis Director of Parks, Recreation and Forestry Greg Hayes said that out of the nine-step approval process for new park developments, the basketball courts are still at step three.
Hayes said: “Step three goes to the advisory boards somewhat of a prospectus, if you will. A very general description of the proposed project. Subsequent to that, it goes to step six, which is essentially 50% design.”
The final step is when the Forest Park Advisory Board either approves or rejects the project. The Forest Park advisory board provides opportunities for the community to share input on the project on a monthly basis, but this month’s meeting has been canceled. The next advisory board meeting is scheduled for Oct. 20. By then, almost a full year will have passed since the last time basketball courts were the focus of the agenda. Hayes remains optimistic about how the planning process is going so far. “We're just very excited. And we're excited about every park project … we're excited with that momentum. And we'll just keep planning the process and move forward.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.