After talk of 'gangs' and 'drugs,' West St. Paul brings back its basketball hoops

Haskell Park in West St. Paul hasn't seen a basketball hoop since 2005.

Haskell Park in West St. Paul hasn't seen a basketball hoop since 2005. West St. Paul Parks and Recreation

West St. Paul residents gathered in the City Council chambers and tried to answer an important – if weird -- question. Was the city ready for basketball privileges again?

This question goes all the way back to 2005, when the council voted to remove the hoops in Haskell Park.

“There were many complaints in the neighborhood about noise, drug use, and gang activity,” Parks and Rec Director Dave Schletty explained. “And it basically revolved around the basketball court use.”

A year later, almost the same thing happened at Oakdale Park – the “problem,” as Schletty put it, had moved from one park to the next. Those hoops went away too. All that remains are lonely, useless poles.

The courts, Mayor Dave Napier said, are pretty empty. “I hate to say it, but there are some folks that spoil it for others.”

He believes that the council did what it had to do at the time, but he doesn’t think it’s fair to the community to keep punishing it for past deeds. Some residents have even set up makeshift hoops in streets.

What followed was a lengthy parade of intense public testimony. It was clear that not everyone thought the way Napier did. Including Dwane Melville, who lives across from Oakdale Park and said he remembers what they were like before the hoops got taken away.

“As far as we could tell, there was no local kids using those basketball courts,” he said. “Where these people came from, we don’t know.”

But whoever these high school kids and young adults were, they were getting into “gang fights,” “having sex behind the trees,” and turning around in his driveway. He warned if the city brought back basketball, “those people” would be back too.

“They weren’t people from our community,” another neighbor insisted. And besides – there were homes on all four sides of Oakdale. Why, she asked, would you want to put basketball back there? Think of the noise and all the kids staying up late.

“Maybe soccer or something,” she suggested. “Or a pavilion… that would be nice. Or a fire pit.”

She left the podium without fully explaining why basketball would inherently be noisier than any of those other options.

Other residents spoke up, saying they’d seen horrors around the basketball courts in their time. People urinating in public. Sexual harassment of moms and children. Tagging. Brawls. And since the basketball has gone away, they claimed, it’s all been little league and picnics. They didn’t want to lose a good thing.

But a long-term resident who identified himself as “Edgar” approached the podium. He’s a father of four. He grew up in L.A., so he didn’t have a lot of access to free, public courts. They go to Oakdale three or four times a week as a family.

“They love it,” he said. There are a lot of kids running wild, sure – but also plenty of dogs in nearby backyards. He assured that the dogs were a lot louder than the kids. He’d like to see an activity in place for older kids, who are too old for the playground.

“Why not give it another shot?” he asked. “And if it doesn’t work, whatever.”

Edgar was far from alone. Resident after resident – some of them parkside dwellers – spoke in favor of reinstating the hoops. That, they said, is what public parks are for – basketball, fireworks, screaming, roughhousing, and fun.

“It’s for use,” neighbor Mark Ring said. “The price I pay for living close to a park is for people to use the park. …Put the hoops back up.”

In the end, the hoops prevailed by a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Dick Vitelli as the only naysayer. The room burst into applause after the final aye. Even if it was just reclaiming a couple of half courts in two public parks, it was being treated like a victory.