Hours before authorities unlocked and swung open the wrought-iron gates to the newly-renovated Davis Park on June 22, a group of about a dozen young men were sweating and heaving on the park’s basketball court.
They had hopped the high fence in gazelle-like fashion, too eager to wait around for the park’s grand reopening.
Sunday’s ribbon-cutting christened the refurbished playlot that annexes the Westside Health Authority’s youth development center on the 5400 block of West Division. The event featured community residents and elected officials, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
15th District Commander Barbara West, state Rep. Camille Lily (78th) and 37th Ward Ald. Emma Mitts were among the scheduled dignitaries present.
Davis Park is among 103 neighborhood playgrounds across the city slated for construction or renovations this year, part of the mayor’s “Chicago Plays! program. Other Austin playgrounds selected include Austin Town Hall Park, De George Playlot Park on 4900 W. Wabansia, and Clark Park at Jackson and Kolmar.
As he waited in front of Davis Park’s locked gates for the ceremony to start, Marshawn Feltus looked on admiringly as more young men gracefully lunged themselves across the iron fencing.
“I’m glad to see them jumping the fence to play basketball, because they could be jumping the fence going to steal something,” Feltus said.
A little more than two decades ago, he was a teenager with the same raw dynamism and boundless energy but instead was lured into a life of violence, gangs, crime, and eventually prison.
He was locked away for 18 years and nine months after a gang dispute led to a murder charge. But in prison, he found the unlikeliest savior: yoga. He would master the discipline and go on to establish Austin’s first black-owned yoga studio after his release. A few days before the ribbon-cutting, the studio celebrated its one year anniversary.
“I think this park is good. Anything that’s stress-reducing is where I’m needed,” Feltus said. “Inner city kids are probably the most under-diagnosed in terms of trauma. Look at soldiers who return home from war. A lot of them can’t cope; they need some special care. Our kids have been dealing with war-like trauma their whole lives. They have to assimilate into this stressful environment and adapt to it just to survive.”
Milton Johnson, who had arrived later on after the ribbon-cutting was just getting underway, agrees with Feltus.
“Most of our children live daily with trauma. They need any release they can get in a loving, caring environment,” said Johnson, who works for the Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center in West Garfield Park.
But Davis Park hasn’t always been an outdoor sanctuary, says Virgil Crawford, a community organizer with Westside Health Authority. For more than a decade, it was off the Chicago Park District’s radar, Crawford said.
The quarter-acre playlot was created in 1955 as the result of the city’s efforts to increase the number of neighborhood parks in underserved communities. The back-area basketball court was built soon after. In 1956, the park was named after 37th Ward community activist Margaret E. Davis, who was a fierce advocate for more recreational facilities in the neighborhood.
In 1959, the city transferred control of Davis Park to the Park District. As the years receded, so did the park’s luster. By the 1990s, it had become a haven for crime and gang activity.
“With us right next door, the negative, violent behavior from that lot filtered over to us,” Crawford said of WHA, which has been around since 1988. “So, in our efforts to organize this neighborhood and get citizens more involved, one of our areas of focus was the parks.”
According to Crawford, residents formed the Davis Playlot Advisory Council about 15 years ago — the lot at the time had only a chained-link fence, the asphalt basketball court and a sliding board, plus one monkey bar and a few swings. The council’s recommendations for improvements were submitted to and eventually accepted by the Park District, Crawford said.
An iron fence was put up and structured programs run by the Park District during the week were soon implemented.
“Since then, we’ve seen that playlot transform from a gang haven to a recreational space we’re all proud of,” Crawford said.
Still, additional repairs to the park were needed, which the Park District finally did.
Part of the renovations included a new youth center that opened on Tuesday. The Chicago Plays! initiative is funded via the Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development Program (OSLAD), which is administered by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
OSLAD grants may provide up to 90-percent funding assistance for projects in distressed communities. The program is paid for by a portion of the Real Estate Transfer Tax.
Moments before Sunday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, people danced to the brassy, bass-rich sound of Austin’s Exodus Drum and Bugle Corps. The basketball courts were brimming with young people, and the scent and smoke of grilled meat wafted several hundred feet in all directions.
Young men were in a space of their own, either on the courts competing or sitting courtside waiting for their turn.
Jamari Robinson, 16, had next.
“It looks better than it normally did,” he said of the park. “It looks real good now. I always come down here to hoop. But now it’s good to see new stuff in the park for the little kids.”