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Springfield Officials Keep Laurel at Half Court

Residents clash over basketball hoops at public parks.

The hoop stays down.

Following a spirited public comments session at the Springfield Township Committee meeting, officials announced that the basketball court at Laurel Park would remain half courts. 

One of the court’s hoops was taken down earlier this summer after residents of the neighborhood near the park complained about loutish, unruly and disruptive behavior by players at the park. Similar complaints had led to the town taking down hoops at Smithfield and  in 2011 and 2012.

The removal of the hoop has confused and irked a number of Springfield residents. Several residents have insinuated the move was driven by racism, alleging that the neighbors are complaining because black youths—presumed to be from out of town—use the courts.  

The contention of racism became a central issue in the story as it gained surprising media attention after an opinion article written by 23-year-old Springfield resident Evan Ring . The article garnered over 150 comments and was subsequently featured on WPIX television news. Afterwards, the issue attracted the attention of the Newark Star-Ledger, CBS News and other media outlets. 

Several residents felt that the coverage cast Springfield in a poor light, particularly a quote from resident Michael Ahrens, who told the Ledger that Laurel Park looked “like Rahway State Prison yard" when the full court hoops were up. Several speakers slammed the quote in the public comment session, including former Springfield Mayor Bart Fraenkel, who called the statement “absurd.” During the meeting, Ahrens told Patch he regretted the quote’s “terminology” and that his issues with the players’ stemmed from their actions, not race. 

“I’m Jewish,” he said. “You could have 20 Jewish people with Yarmulkes. If they’re using bad language and urinating, I don’t want them out there either.” 

Like Ahrens, several Springfield residents denied being motivated by race. In his introduction, Springfield Mayor Ziad Andrew Shehady said that “race did not factor into the officials decision.”

Residents opposing the full courts said that when the hoop was up, Laurel Park hosted “yelling, fights and throwing garbage cans.” They said that evidence of liquor and drugs, specifically crack cocaine, had been found in or near the parks. Other residents said they had been victims of harassment and intimidation by players and that the park wasn’t a fit place for families or small children. 

“The language is unbelievable,” Alison Miller said, describing an incident where players reportedly cursed at her while she was with her young children. Another resident said she’d been forced off a court by a group of unruly players who wanted to play a full court game.

Springfield resident David Kerr indicated he didn’t understand the urgent need for full courts. 

“If the worst compromise you have to make is playing half court versus full court, I don’t think you’re going through years of therapy,” he said.

Supporters of reinstating the hoops argued that full court hoops are assets for the town, in part because they attract players from out of town.   noted that the last time he was in town hall it was for his accomplishments on the court, and said full court games against out-of-town players aided his development as a player.

“When they added the full courts, it was like adding new life to the town,” Grant said.

He added that he believed the courts should be open to everyone and worried about the consequences of trying to keep out non-residents.

“If you looked at me, I don’t know if you would identify me as an out-of-towner,” Grant said.

Springfield resident Thomas Mateer shared an anecdote about his young son reading about the hoops and how he didn’t like what the news said about Springfield. He said that he didn’t “teach hate in his home” and worried about the implications for the town.

“Taking the courts down has put a bit of a black eye on the community,” Mateer said.

Other residents argued that the town needed to avoid being exclusionary and to instead invite residents from nearby towns to use the parks. Several residents in their 20s said they regularly played on the courts and that the descriptions of thuggish behavior didn’t jibe with their experiences at the parks.

Following the 45-minute public comment session, Committee members Rich Huber and David Amlen, the members of the township public affairs sub-committee, recommended that the hoops stay down. Amlen expressed some ambivalence about the decision.

“This isn’t a great solution but we don’t have a magic solution to make everybody happy,” Amlen said.

He noted that there was still a full court at Irwin Park. In addition, he said that communication from residents indicated the majority of players at Laurel were from out of town.

Huber supported Amlen’s contention that most players were from out of town. He noted that while he has been involved with youth basketball for over 20 years, he recognized few players at the full court park.

“I’d love to put full courts up,” Huber said. “But we have to respect all residents.”

Township Administrator Anthony Cancro noted that in the last two years, significant improvements have been made to Springfield’s parks, attracting more people to the facilities. He said that removing hoops from Smithfield and Laurel had quelled rowdy behavior in both parks.

“The professional opinion of the department is to leave the hoops as they are,” Cancro said.

Springfield Police Chief John Cook said that his officers had performed regular patrols of the park where they interacted with the players. He said he had personally witnessed trash and large numbers of people. But he said that he had not personally seen much unruly behavior other than players being loud. In addition, he noted that the department had not issued any violations to the players.

“I haven’t seen any of the allegations,” Cook said. “If I had, I would have addressed them.”

In his closing remarks, Shehady took aim at the media for “making a circus” over the debate about the parks. He said he believed some claims about the players seemed exaggerated.

"I find it very hard to believe we have drunk, drugged up kids that are playing basketball," he said. 

He emphasized that full court basketball was a privilege, not a right. Nonetheless, he said that the town needed to find a long-term solution, but warned that it would involve compromise. But first they have to deal with the media fall-out.

“Everyone has made this an embarrassing and public display we’re not going to be able to recover from in the near future,” Shehady said.

After the hearing, Evan Ring said that while he was disappointed with the outcome that he felt it was good to hear people on different sides of the issue speak their minds. But he added that he was particularly interested in Chief Cook’s statement about not issuing violations.

“He didn’t actually find anything,” Ring said. “I still feel that taking down the full courts in Springfield was unfounded.”

Ben Saks, a 23-year-old Electrical Engineer from Springfield, said he thought the Committee made their decision without due regard for the public’s input.

“I believe the Committee already had their decision made, which I think is unfair,” Saks said.

At least one residents opposed to full court play indicated he found the meeting to be an unpleasant experience. 

"What irritates me is that they were sitting up there being called racists," he said. "We're not."

Len August 29, 2012 at 01:18 PM
Here is a solution: Build a 20 foot fence surrounding the courts, issue photo permits to all residents that wish to use the courts, hire a person to stand at the gates during hours of operation for the courts who will check the photos, and allow each resident to bring one guest with him. This will ensure that every full court game will have at least five Springfield residents playing. Discuss!!
R. Ring August 29, 2012 at 01:38 PM
I appreciate the accuracy and fairness of Adam’s reporting. However, I now have some new concerns after listening very carefully to all sides of the issue at last night’s TC meeting. As per Chief Cook, Springfield PD, the police have not witnessed much unruly behavior and the department had not issued any violations to the players, yet many residents stated that they have been victims of harassment and intimidation. One resident said she witnessed a physical assault toward a neighbor. I do not doubt the claims, but what concerns me is that these people did not file formal complaints with the police department. These are clearly law enforcement issues and if we do not, as citizens, follow the proper channels to put a stop to this behavior, it will continue. Maybe not at Laurel or Smithfield Parks, but these individuals who have been taught by our residents that they can get away with such appalling behavior, will intimidate and harass somewhere and someone else. Many residents argued that they do not want their young children exposed to this negative behavior, but think of the lesson are they teaching their children by allowing these individuals to avoid legal consequences for their illegal actions. I suppose it isn’t a problem anymore now that the hoops are down. Perhaps their logic is that it will be someone else’s problem. Unfortunately, it is society’s problem and we are all going to suffer for this, so much more than playing half court basketball.
Shane Ronan August 29, 2012 at 01:39 PM
This would be illegal as state Green Acres funds were used to improve the parks which requires specifically that they be open to everyone, regardless of where they live.
R. Ring August 29, 2012 at 01:40 PM
If we want to live in a tranquil, safe town, it is the responsibility of all citizens to formally report, not just complain to the PD. Isn’t it possible that if residents near the parks initially filed actual complaints against the young men they spoke of, the police would have not needed to be called time and time again?
R. Ring August 29, 2012 at 01:41 PM
In addition, can someone please tell me who specifically, was responsible for the decision to spend the state money on redoing the basketball courts? I honestly want a reply. Mayor Shehady stated at the TC meeting last night that we are one of the last towns in the area to have full court basketball and most of the surrounding towns have already resorted to a single hoop solution to control behavior in the parks. If this is accurate, why was this information not considered before allocating state funds to redo our basketball courts? Was research done prior to spending this state money? Was there other usable space in our parks that could have benefited from these funds, rather than spending it on something that we cannot utilize? Again, this is a much bigger concern than full or half court basketball.
Springfield Resident August 29, 2012 at 02:07 PM
I do a lot of travelling throughout the tri-state area and I have always been proud to tell people I am from Springfield. Not all knwo where it is but now I can just tell them its the little racist town in Union County.
BART FRAENKEL August 29, 2012 at 02:57 PM
The decision to renovate the town parks was done in 2008 while I was mayor, and was approved by the entire TC, including Shehady. So any of his comments regarding 'we know who did this' must include him. And I was and still am proud of the work that was done. The parks were run down and in terrible shape and needed to be upgraded. And for anyone who hasn't lived in Springfield for more then 10 years, Laurel Park was the only park that did not have a full court basketball court prior to the renovations. Every other park had full court, although they were in a slightly smaller footprint. And many of the parks did not have equipment for smaller children until the renovations, so in all fairness, the parks were upgraded to enable smaller children to have use of them in addition to the facilities available to older children and adults.
BART FRAENKEL August 29, 2012 at 05:44 PM
Since non-residents can't be excluded from the park because Green Acres funds were used in the past, why not create resident only parking in the areas around the park (2 blocks or so), which would result in the parks being used by primarily the local residents. This would eliminate usage by people not from town without violating the Green Acres laws. It's not illegal to create resident only parking in any town, its only illegal to not allow use of the park.
Anna August 29, 2012 at 08:49 PM
Bravo for your honesty, Mr. Fraenkel.
Anna August 29, 2012 at 08:57 PM
While I do understand and appreciate the concerns of residents living near the basketball courts in regard to the noise and often rowdy teenage behavior, isn't it ironic that we as a society complain about teenage deliquents who sit around doing nothing constructive and therefore get involved in criminal activities, yet when teenagers DO get involved in healthy alternatives (basketball = exercise, socialization, challenging oneself athletically, learning to get along with others) we complain about that, as well? How about this, Springfield: Build a recreational park that is not smack dab in the middle of a residential area, but close enough for kids and teenagers to go to. Kids want, need, and deserve places to play and interact with one another. They deserve gathering places where adults won't frown upon them for 'loitering' or disrupting the neighbors. Residents who move to the suburbs want and deserve the relative peace and quiet that home ownership in Springfield promises. They don't deserve litter or noise until 3 a.m. So build a park that meets both needs. I doubt this will happen because Springfield doesn't have the space or the funds. But if it does, and people are still complaining about the park, then I'll be the first to say it is nothing but racism. Then, shame on us. We teach our children about tolerance and respect, but if we don't practice what we preach, we shouldn't be surprised at how they turn out. Regardless of skin color.
Anna August 29, 2012 at 09:14 PM
From what I hear, and from several sources, Detective John Cook is a very conscientious, concerned officer of the law. Had he received even an inkling that there was serious trouble in the parks, he would have followed it up thoroughly. He also, according to my neighbors, knows Springfield like the back of his hand and makes it a point to watch out for all of us. So if Detective Cook is saying he never witnessed nor had reported to him, the kind and degree of criminal, dangerous activities that are being stated by residents, I believe him. I agree with Ring here --- if you feel threatened and unsafe, report it. That's what the Springfield police are here for.
Dave S August 29, 2012 at 09:18 PM
its convenient that our mayor mandated that race could not be discussed at the meeting when its clear that race was the predominant issue at play here.
arborette August 29, 2012 at 10:37 PM
I drive past Charles Cohn Park at least twice a day on workdays. The people I saw playing basketball were mostly in their 20's - they were not teenagers. The trash which overflowed from the receptacles (that is the fault of the Garbage Department) and all over the surrounding area (that is the fault of the park users) included beer and alcohol bottles. These could be seen easily from passing cars. I love Springfields's little parks, they are one of the nicest things about Springfield in my opinion. I think of them as "pocket parks," a term used for neighborhood parks conceived of for the benefit of local residents. Many years ago I lived in Maplewood. There was a park I liked to go to which became too unpleasant to visit and also had recently installed basketball courts. I think that the combination of basketball courts and swings for toddlers or other more gently recreation is a poor one. I think the swings and the courts are about 10 feet apart at Cohn Park. Children need play spaces where cursing and drinking is absent. But they also need to be a greater distance from the pushing, shoving and natural aggression of a full court basketball game. Combining adult and children's recreation needs better planning than was done here. If you are gong to have basketball courts, you are going to have cursing, pushing and all the other things that go with a testosterone driven activity. This was a flawed plan from the start which has ended very badly.
sjs August 30, 2012 at 05:35 PM
Former Springfield mayor Ziad Shehady, who is currently running for reelection to the Township Committee, said he was surprised by the announcement. “My jaw dropped on Tuesday when I heard Rich [Huber] announce that he had directed Recreation to take the hoops and nets down after meeting with the Recreation Committee,” Shehady said in an email. He questioned the authority of the recreation to take down the hoops, saying the group is an advisory committee. “The decision to take down the hoops was obviously made behind closed doors without public notice or public hearing.” Related Topics: Hoops and missing rims The above was taken from a Patch article date Oct 4, 2011. In that article Race was also discussed. Guess while you are running for office you will say anything to get elected, After you are elected, you just do the same thing as the Party you replaced. Everyone, please read the full article and comments by Committee person Fernandez.
sjs August 30, 2012 at 07:49 PM
Committeeman Marc Krauss 1:11 am on Wednesday, October 5, 2011 Mayor Keffer ignored a motion by Mr. Fernandez, seconded by myself, to reinstall the hoops. Only later to capitulate to a resident that suggested the very same thing. Several residents provided some great suggestions that should be considered to deter the disruptive behavior witnessed by some residents. 1. Provided parking permits for local residents in and around the park areas. 2. Full courts should have stagger hoop heights to prevent full court games and to allow younger children the opportunity to play. 3. Update park rules/regulations with more guidelines for enforcement. 4. Limit the park closing time from 10PM to dusk. The courts are not lit so no playing should occur after sundown. There are legitimate concerns raised by residents about the behavior of a small group of individuals and their feelings of safety and security at the basketball courts in our parks and within our neighborhoods. These concerns were addressed during tonight’s meeting by the Chief of Police. The final outcome – all hoops are to re-installed, except in two parks and the 4 points mentioned above and other items will be addressed by the Recreation Subcommittee this coming Thursday at 6pm at the Sarah Bailey building. Imagine if this was done before the hoops were removed.
Lawrence Dvorchik September 02, 2012 at 08:29 PM
As a member of the Township Recreation Committee, and as a co-administrator of the Springfield Youth Recreation Basketball program, the courts in town have been an issue that has been discussed for almost 2 years. Valid points have been made from both sides. However, it must be pointed out that playing half-court is a completely different game than full court. I have played all summer in Irwin Park, and can attest to the overflowing of the garbage, but shouldn't that be an issue that is with the garbage collection? If there are unruly players, couldn't many of those issues be overcome with more vigilant police visibility? Perhaps instead of sitting in the parking lots at Dayton, Walton, etc, a better use of the officers time and energies would be to visit parks, and ensure that the unruliness people are complaining about does not occur?. I have yet to meet anyone doing something illegal or immoral, that would LIKE to see police presence. As a taxpayer, I would rather see the police helping maintain order in the parks than remove something that encourages our children to play outdoors, and exercise. The solution curretly in effect is a short term and short sighted solution, but one that will bring an immdiate resolution to residents' concerns. Why is it so hard for Springfield politicians to develp a vision and a plan to develop a comprehensive, bi-partisan, multi-departmental non-selfish or ego driven long term solution?
R. Ring September 03, 2012 at 02:52 AM
Mr. Dvorchik, Your comment makes a lot of sense. Did you email our elected officials to let them know how you feel? I have heard others who have similar observations and suggestions. Please do not give up. If you have not done so already, let the Mayor and Committeemen know whats on your mind. Mayor ziad.shehady@springfield-nj.us Deputy Mayor jerry.fernandez@springfield-nj.us Committeeman marc.krauss@springfield-nj.us Committeeman david.amlen@springfield-nj.us Committeeman rich.huber@springfield-nj.us Township Administrator Anthony.Cancro@Springfield-nj.us
BART FRAENKEL September 03, 2012 at 12:01 PM
Larry, since the Recreation Committee made the recommendation that is currently being followed, I'm curious if this issue was discussed with the entire committee or if it was just something the TC members decided on their own. Maybe you can provide some insight into that.
Anna September 18, 2012 at 09:47 PM
That's a very valid point. I also think residents need to step up to the plate and report any harassment and drug paraphernalia that they witness. Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but it appears nobody has filed any complaints with the police about harassment, drug paraphernalia, graffiti, intidmidating behavior, etc. (As for foul language, I'm not sure someone can be arrested for that, and if they can, then a lot of us would be paying a fine every time a driver cuts us off the road or we receive our latest cable bill. Cops can't do their job without a formal report.
Jim Shamrock September 27, 2012 at 09:06 PM
Public Affairs "Sub" Committee....NEEDS TO GO.... When is the next vote???? Put the basketball hoops up with some regulations-- Full court organized games between 3-5 PM only etc. Otherwise, half court only so the young kids and parents can get out there. Also, report any bad behavior to the Police. Make it a regulation that Springfield residents can invite out of towners to play but Residents must be present. These may seem ridiculous but better than Not having a baskball hoop on a court that is already built. Also, open up the old YMCA building and make a rec center for teens....Please!!!
Angry Parent October 09, 2012 at 10:32 PM
Well, that's a postive solution. Here's another....Don't buy a house near one of these very small parks if you do not like kids or noise!!! Go move by the golf course or a Cemetary if you want peace and quiet. Springfield is still full of Old time Snobs!!!
Angry Parent October 09, 2012 at 10:37 PM
There should be full court or 2 baskets on these courts. Put the hoops back up and put restrictions on times for full court and other times are half court only. The future as always...Are Our Kids!!!!! Give them a place to play sports and schools to teach and MAYBE a TEEN CENTER???????? It keeps kids off the streets and out of trouble. Hey, can we get some signs up for these issues???? Replace All of the Current Committee if they won't pull the trigger on this issue.
Angry Parent October 09, 2012 at 10:41 PM
A town run by ignorant People! Be Carefull who we Vote in for Committee and sub committees since they run the town! I didn't know we voted for a dictatorship??? Put it to vote!!!!!
Angry Parent October 09, 2012 at 10:47 PM
Well, you had the right idea! The Committee and sub committee needs to discuss OPTIONS....Not just shut down full courts by removing the hoops. "I don't want to play so I'm taking my Ball home"....wahhh!!!! How about Laurel is just 2 half court basketball meant for a family park with parents and kids and SmithField a Full Court Basketball (since there is nothing but woods behind and next to it and set so far back). Some solutions, any , but put the hoops back up! In fact, any person running for Sub Committee or Committee should use it in their campaign (promise to but basketball back in place in Springfield!)
Angry Parent October 09, 2012 at 10:54 PM
Smithfield is the perfect solution for full court basketball. Put the hoops all back up and make half court basketball only and all smaller "pocket Parks". In fact, make one of the baskets smaller in height (for young kids only). The parks department Needs to step up and keep parks clean and if there are problems like beer bottles etc., Notify the Police so they can watch the parks closer. Believe it or not, the parks department and Police should be involved with all of this. They are all lucky enough to have jobs in this town during this terrible economy and Safety of OUR kids should be the Primary Goal! This is not Newark, or NYC and is small enough to Patrol to keep safety. Wake up Committee!!!!
Angry Parent October 09, 2012 at 10:55 PM
I agree Mr. Shamrock!!!!
Angry Parent October 10, 2012 at 12:25 AM
Now, finally some rational suggestions!!! Mr. Fernandez, my vote goes to you if you keep pushing these suggestions and use this type of thinking Before decisions are made in town.
Angry Parent October 10, 2012 at 12:34 AM
Agreed!!!!! Police, especially since there is a large presence of young officers on the force, should team with parents on encouraging the youth of Springfield. I grew up in NYC in an area where Police presence was welcomed especially around the baseball fields and basketball courts. (and kept away the unruly kids looking for trouble). Garbage and beer bottles have no business in this town and needs to be kept up by the town. (If you need to hire more cleanup crews I know quite a few people out of work. And get high school kids to do volunteer work that they can learn from helping and get credit on their resume for College).
Angry Parent October 10, 2012 at 12:45 AM
In regards to Laurel Park..... I have Never, Ever seen any older kids or beer bottles or drug paraphanalia anywhere near that park. Laurel has and still is the small park geared towards tennis, young children playground and small field for youth soccer practice. The basketball courts their were usually used by Parents shooting baskets with their young sons or daughters (I personally brought my kids there many times). Put the second hoop back up so Parents and kids can practice on both sides.
Angry Parent October 10, 2012 at 12:48 AM
Part 2,..... The Laurel Park was used so often this Spring and summer that you have to creep by in your car to pass the park since parking is full on both sides of the street by Parents of young kids. Perhaps this bothers the neighbors. Like I said, if you move by a small park expect some noise and parking issues etc. The park does not belong to the adjacent neighbors....it's for the entire town.

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