By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The monthly meetings of the Bellaire Parks and Recreation Advisory Board are not known for their controversies. Normally, they proceed with the sort of quiet, orderly efficiency that characterizes much of Bellaire life.
But that changed this month when the board held a public hearing, and a few Bellaireans opened up their terror-stricken hearts.
The subject was the game of basketball.
"I've lived in Bellaire since 1973, and the only time I've feared for the city is when the basketball goal has been up," Ken Pennell said.
''I don't think the element it's bringing in is what we want," another resident added. ''I don't like the criminal activity."
The basketball goal at Evergreen Park has been up and down many times over the years, and it was the prospect that it would rise again that drew about ten neighbors of the park out of their homes and into politics. From Fort Lauderdale to Greensboro, North Carolina, to the Chicago suburbs, battles like this have been fought across the country for years, as people who live near basketball courts try to keep the kind of people who play basketball out of their communities. They complain of fast cars and foul language, of boom boxes and beer cans. In some cases, they are talking about black people. In most cases, they try not to say so.
The Houston Parks and Recreation Department has never removed a rim because of citizen complaint, said spokeswoman Susan Christian. "That doesn't make a lot of sense to me," she said. Rather than asking that goals be removed, people more often request that more courts be built, she says. The department maintains 178 around the city. For a smaller, different crowd, it offers more than 200 tennis courts.
The result of the shortage, perhaps, is the have-ball-will-travel phenomenon. Two years ago, at River Oaks Park, a full court was converted into two half courts to draw that smaller, different crowd. The same thing was done at two parks in West University Place, and the location of the remaining courts the parks director didn't want publicized. "Our parks are for our citizens," Mark Mailes explained.
This essentially was the feeling expressed as the hearing began in Bellaire. Since ballplayers aren't a politically active bunch, none appeared that evening, and so a middle-aged, all-white group of neighbors opened up comfortably to an all-white board of listeners.
Ken Pennell said basketball brings bullies to Bellaire. He once told the big kids to get off the court so the little kids could play, and they, in other words, told him to get lost. ''I have a problem with that," he said. And Ginny Skebe made the point several times, as though for emphasis, that the basketball court at Evergreen Park had actually been used by men. ''Not teens -- men!" Then when it was her turn, the resident hobbled to the microphone and spoke of her right to peace.
"I feel the court's a danger to my health," she said. "I suffer from chronic obstructed lung disease, and basketball users are not considerate people."
They're noisy and messy, she said. They drink from her hose and leave beer cans at her curb, and she has seen ''so many drug deals at the basketball court," she said, and the police are afraid to go there without backup.
"Are we expected to live in fear when our own police need backup?" she wanted to know.
Later, the assistant chief of police, Randy Mack, would say that Evergreen Park has never struck him as a high-crime zone and that Bellaire policemen certainly require no assistance to go there. He would also say, ''You been talking to (resident)? Yeah, she calls frequently."
It was not that resident, however, who set the tone of the evening. Things did not really get going until Terry Lefebver began talking. He didn't live on Verone Street in the basketball days, but no one at the meeting was more afraid of the game than he. Lefebver lives in one of the big houses that dwarf those around it, and he said he hasn't felt safe in Bellaire. There are teenagers sitting in the park who watch him as he drives by, ''and they're predatory in nature," he said, ''and I can't understand how putting up the goal will improve this basically unacceptable situation. It will only attract a more hardened criminal element."
Later, the assistant chief of police would also have something to say about this. He would say that a basketball court would probably attract only basketball players. But at the meeting, Lefebver's remark went unchallenged, because there was something more serious to consider now, and that was the cold possibility that perhaps the enemy was within. Among the happy infants swinging and sliding in the play area, perhaps a few had grown into deviant adolescence, and perhaps it was they who were haunting Evergreen Park. Board member Casey Doherty was the first to suggest it.
''They look like they're from God knows where," he said, ''but I suspect they are for the most part Bellaire kids."
At the entrance to the park, a sign reads ''Caution Children," and maybe the children of Bellaire should start paying heed to that sign, because after a certain age, they're not wanted in the area. What can be done about ''the bad element" -- that kid with the red beret (maybe he's in a gang, Melissa Sherman wondered) and that hopelessly unfashionable dude with the Mohawk?
Doherty suggested blaring classical music, and everyone chuckled at this. No one laughed, though, when Ginny Skebe said maybe they should remove the park benches. Then Susan Burke got up to say it's so bad in Bellaire that last year, for the first time, she felt it necessary to lock her doors when she leaves the house. Something has to be done, she said, ''and I think you should take down the goal, and take out the benches and barbecue pits and don't fix the phone." She didn't mention filling in the pool, but she did say her ''for sale" sign wound up in there, ''and I felt very violated and very frightened. I quit going out at night years ago unless I'm in Bellaire, but I don't feel safe now, and I don't like that feeling, I really don't."
The game of basketball seemed far removed from all of this, but to the neighbors, it was front and center. After the meeting, they huddled together outside, congratulating themselves on their speeches, and when a board member emerged, they asked him what he thought. Despite a survey that showed Bellaire residents want the rim put back up by a margin of 3-1, despite a summary of crime in the park that showed only a spattering of minor offenses and more of those when the goal was down -- despite everything, board member Bill Stone assured the group the goal at Evergreen Park probably would not rise again.
The board makes its recommendation to city council next month. The residents are hoping for peace.
''I like teenagers," she said. ''I wish the city would do something for them, but I don't think basketball is the answer.