On July 12, 1988, 7-year-old Ralph Brooks Jr. was running toward his grandmother’s house on 20th Street near Dickinson in South Philadelphia when a bullet hit him from behind, severing his spinal cord.
Today, Brooks is remembered by a local basketball park a block away at 20th and Tasker Streets that was named after him, as his story, over time, has severely impacted the surrounding neighborhood.
The most striking feature of the park is a wall that displays the names of people who have been affected by acts of violence. It is an evocative backdrop that challenges the neighborhood to overcome its history.
In the coming months Urban Roots, a non-profit group founded in 2011 by real estate and planning consultant Jeffrey Tubbs, will begin the first, $300,000 phase of an ambitious renovation of the park that will transform the basketball court into a “Rucker Park,” a kind of franchise location of the iconic New York City youth basketball program begun in the late 1940s in Harlem. This will be the first Rucker Park outside of Harlem. According to Tubbs, construction is likely to begin by the end of 2013.
“Every time I walk past here, I barely see people playing. When I first moved around here they had basketball leagues, and it was good. I guess a lot of shootings started around here so they stopped the leagues, which made everyone stop coming around. I think when the new park is here everyone will come back and it should be a safer place,” says Deron Powell, 17.
“We’re getting kids involved in designing and building it and that adds in a lot of momentum. It’s not just somebody coming in and building something, it’s this community actually rebuilding their own neighborhood,” says Tubbs. The ACE Mentor Program, a Virginia-based national non-profit that mentors high school aged youth in architecture, construction, and engineering, provides programmatic support.
The project’s model, Rucker Park, spawned a number of National Basketball Association greats, including the 76ers’ Julius Erving. In 1947, The Rucker League adopted a motto: “Each one, Teach one.” The underlying message stressed education in combination with recreation.
Nineteen-year-old Kenneth Murphy, an ACE Mentor Program participant in high school, has put his heart into Ralph Brooks Park. Murphy says he grew up playing basketball and always knew it would shape his life in a unique way. “I never thought that I would be a person that could be involved with something that has the potential to be so large. I never thought I would make it to the NBA, but I knew I always knew that I would use basketball as a tool to work with kids,” Murphy says.
In the transition from high school to college, Murphy kept in touch with Jeffrey Tubbs. Tubbs introduced Murphy to the redesign project.
“I thought this would be something really cool for me to get involved in. This court is deep in South Philly and for it to have the Rucker Park name behind it is huge. It is now a part of Philly and for it to have the same meaning as such a historic spot allows for kids to really have something amazing to look up to,” adds Murphy.
“People being scared of the area is something that needs to be changed. All I’m saying is this park will make things better. It will make the area look better, too,” Powell adds.
Most of the funding for the project’s first phase has been secured through grants from the City, the Water Department, Urban Roots, the ACE Mentor Program, I.am.SP, and Plante Associates. On May 29, Urban Roots will launch a crowdfunding campaign on Lucky Ant to raise the balance. Tubbs says Cole Hamels, Dwyane Wade, Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller, Metta World Peace, John Kruk, the Rucker Foundation, Thaddeus Young, and others have signed on to support the campaign.
Tubbs says three additional park renovation phases will cost about $700,000.
Murphy sees the project as something more than just fixing up a basketball court. Seeing involvement from youth gives him hope for the future. He likes knowing that neighborhood kids are working on something they care about. “To see them doing something positive and have their name on it makes them feel like they are doing something important, and that’s a really good feeling,” he says.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story appeared on the Tumblr site of “Here’s My Chance.”