October 30, 2008

Racism Cries Result From Construction Controversy

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When the New York State Electric Gas company decided two weeks ago not to fund the construction of a new basketball court in a downtown Ithaca park, it brought an apparent end to an ongoing struggle between neighbors of the park and city officials that had resulted in allegations of racism and stereotyping.
The controversy began earlier this year as the Greater Ithaca Activities Center searched for an alternative site for its youth and adult basketball leagues because its current basketball facility was contaminated with coal tar and had to undergo a two-year-long clean up project. Since NYSEG was found to be responsible for the contamination, it had struck an agreement with the city to secure a “suitable alternative site” for the GIAC basketball leagues, according to City Attorney Dan Hoffman.
GIAC proposed installing a new basketball court on open space in Conway Park, which is located several blocks away from the Center.
However, tension soon grew between some neighbors of the park who opposed the construction of a basketball court and some city officials who supported GIAC’s plan. The residents complained that the project would create more noise, crowds and litter while decreasing the park’s green space.
Alderperson Maria Coles (D-1st Ward) said that GIAC tried, unsuccessfully, to work with the community to mitigate some of their concerns.
“I called a couple of the residents, and I asked them, ‘What is it we can do?’” she said. “No one was interested in any kind of negotiation of that sort, at least not with me.”
Coles explained that the “quite offensive attitudes and remarks” from a “vocal minority” who opposed the court could not be characterized as anything but racist. She said that the intensity of the opposition as well as residents’ unwillingness to negotiate led her to believe that there were elements of prejudice at play in the community.
“There is a strong element of racism in the opposition to relocating the GIAC basketball court, even though it is not present in the entire opposition,” she said. “There is also a stereotypical understanding of poor people and minorities.”
Coles cited an incident at Conway Park in which a man approached a GIAC staff member who was working with children, stared at her and questioned her presence in the park, as an example of the racism.
Marcia Fort, director of GIAC, echoed Coles’s comments about working with the residents in the neighborhood.
“What’s disheartening is that we have been working diligently to address [their] concerns, but there are a number of people who have been vehemently opposed and have been unwilling to engage in dialogue,” she said. “It seems that their minds have been made up in the beginning because some of their concerns are unfounded.”
Fort said that GIAC has been running basketball leagues in Ithaca for years and would have been a respectful member of the Conway Park community.
Fort also agreed with Coles’s assertion that prejudice was a force in some of the opposition to the basketball court.
“I think there have been unfortunate stereotypes associated with basketball courts,” Fort said. “I think it’s unfair and stereotypical to describe basketball courts as places where there is noise and garbage and people are not considerate of their neighbors.”
Robert Mack, who has participated in the GIAC basketball leagues and is also employed by GIAC, said that he was disappointed in the opposition to the court as well.
“It’s unfair. No one in the community wants to give, and no one wants to compromise,” he said.
Mack said that opposition to the court reflects a stereotyped view of the type of people who play basketball and come to GIAC. He said that the participants never violently fight, and the basketball leagues attract a diverse group of people that include college professors.
“The basketball court is needed and there is tradition here,” he said. “Not having it would lose a lot more than basketball.”
Mack, who started coming to GIAC when he was 17, said the center and its basketball leagues greatly helped him transition from Brooklyn to the Ithaca area.
“I was a knucklehead. I had family issues and had trouble initially,” he said. “GIAC helped me keep good grades and helped me when I needed a job.”
Eric Rosario, an alderman who represents the Conway Park neighborhood, said that some of his constituents may have felt mistrust towards GIAC because they felt the court was presented to them as a done deal.
“I think there was a lot of mistrust on the part of neighbors, and that fed some more mistrust about whether or not his would be good for the community,” he said. “I think on the other side of things, some things were said by neighbors that I can see being seen as stereotypical, which led people in support of [the project] to feel like there was insensitivity.”
Atif Chaudhry grad, a resident of the Conway Park neighborhood, opposes the construction of the basketball court and said he was amazed to hear GIAC say that racism was part of the opposition.
“It seems like a stretch,” he said. “[Allegations of racism] drive a wedge into the community, and I don’t see what good they are because GIAC should be trying to build bridges [with the community].”
Chaudhry said that he felt GIAC mishandled the situation by failing to communicate with the residents, who felt the project was a done deal before GIAC sought their input.
“They created an environment because of how they approached the issue, in which we didn’t feel our concerns would be taken seriously,” he said.
Rosario said that he does not know if the situation is emblematic of any bigger racial or socio-economic problems in Ithaca, but added that friction is often inevitable as people differ over how to use the city’s scarce resources.
Rosario expressed a desire to move on from the tension between neighbors and GIAC and focus on the mission of finding a basketball court for the youth and adult leagues for next summer.
However, he added, “I’d be naïve if I didn’t acknowledge that there is hurt and it will take some time for that to heal.”
In moving forward, GIAC officials said that they are looking into existing indoor and outdoor courts that they could rent elsewhere in the city. In a press statement, NYSEG pledged to reimburse GIAC for any rental costs for a replacement court and for associated transportation costs.