The transformation of mural-style courts across America has its roots in Memphis, where Daniel Peterson noticed the majority of courts had fallen into disrepair. It was then, in 2014, that Peterson founded Project Backboard, a nonprofit that has renovated public basketball courts in cities from Los Angeles to St. Louis. More renovations in Memphis, Maryland, and New Rochelle, New York, are underway, and Peterson has consulted on projects in Oregon, Virginia, and Belgium, and talked to several other urban parks departments.
In Memphis, where one in four residents lives beneath the poverty line, Peterson found in 2014 that around two-thirds of basketball courts across the city didn’t even have basic lines: foul, three-point, or out-of-bounds. Backboards were tagged with Coke logos or vinyl stickers. The courts just didn’t work. Today, mostly teen boys and young men play on more than 20 renovated courts, whose 30 public works of art include whimsical silhouettes on Lewis-Davis Park, bright profiles and symbols in Chickasaw Park, and geographic shapes in Pierotti Park.
Fear-driven efforts to shut down outdoor courts seem to disproportionately affect people of color. A so-called “kill-the-hoops movement” has spread across small towns and cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, as a maneuver against guns, noise, fights, and drugs. In 2016, a neighborhood group in Brooklyn proposed replacing basketball courts with tennis courts to curb crime, and was accused of racist motivations.
“Obviously, I don’t subscribe to the belief that inviting more people into an area is going to have a negative impact on your community,” Peterson said. “We think the more people you bring into the community, into public spaces, the more positive impact it’ll have in the community.”
The idea of infusing public art with outdoor courts is a clever one but I am curious about the long-term effects. Do the courts help attract a broader range of nearby residents? Is the artwork maintained? Does the artwork change behaviors on and near the court or perceptions from insiders and outsiders about the neighborhood? I could see some interesting opportunities arise with artwork and competitions; NBA and college teams have similar gotten into some crazier court designs in recent years to create a home court advantage as well as attract attention.