When you enter, the sounds envelope you: a bouncing ball; the scuffing of sneakers. They seem to be coming from neither here nor there. Although you don’t see people, you hear them — voices — talking about a shared space that’s familiar. It’s the story of Hartranft and its basketball courts, which lie outside a long-closed rec center in the North Philadelphia neighborhood. It’s a story that can’t be told with one narrator. It requires several.
On display for the past three weeks, and concluding Wednesday (with a closing celebration in the evening), this sensory art exhibit has become a point of pride in Hartranft at a time when the courts are in transition to their next chapter. The exhibit, “Home Court: The Hartranft Basketball Court Revival,” has been a year-long endeavor involving commissioned artists, a wide array of community members, and civic leaders who have come together for more than just an inclusive art project. Their effort also has yielded renewed commitment to the future of Hartranft, a neighborhood that’s suffered from a lack of capital investment for decades.
“Before the arts community came through, there were just four of us, four guys carrying the weight of the whole league,” said Eric Bennefield, one of the basketball coaches in Hartranft, who contributed photos for the display. “But this exhibit has encouraged a lot more people to get involved with the playground. It got a lot of people talking about the neighborhood.”
With an eye toward the long-term vitality of Hartranft, building relationships among community members was the primary intention of the Village of Arts and Humanities, which headed up the “Home Court” effort. An arts project was simply the avenue to get there.
“Ultimately, our core mission was to use the art-making process to start the engagement and coming together by community members, and to create a portal for them to meet resources from the city,” said Lillian Dunn, residency manager for SPACES, an arts and residency program housed at the Village. “Our mantra was: We’re here to make a space for you to figure out what you want and then to bring in the resources that you want and hand them off to you — that’s it.”
For example, during the process of creating the exhibit, the Village of Arts and Humanity connected residents with the Philadelphia Parks Alliance to begin the process of forming a new Recreation Advisory Council within the neighborhood. That came out of conversations with residents who wanted to stretch the energy around this particular project beyond just one set of courts.
“Home Court” kicked off with a major commitment to the community by the Philadelphia 76ers and the Sixers Youth Foundation, which agreed to overhaul the basketball courts. Working with city officials and the Local Initiative Support Corporation, the Sixers — who already provided programming at a public elementary school neighboring the courts — aspired to do more than just physical upgrades. The Village stepped in with an idea to interview, document, and photograph residents who could tell the story of the courts. It engaged photographer Shawn Theodore, musical artists Ill Doots, and sound designer/composer Mike McDermott to spearhead the creative process, which grew and evolved into what became the exhibit.
Featured in the exhibit are photographs, multimedia wall installations, and intricate sound displays, some of which are accessible by QR codes published on the exhibit guides, which link to a SoundCloud folder of original interviews, songs, and beats compiled by the artists. A piece titled “Dribble DNA” features snapshots of community members (found photos from a thrift store nearby) that are reproduced on small orange circles arranged on the wall, evoking the textured dots of a basketball. One wall features young women who frequent the courts today, while elsewhere in the exhibit the story of Earlene Tindley, a Hartranft hero in the 1970s — “she would have played in the WNBA if it had existed back then” — is told in artifacts and a present-day portrait.
Over the course of several months, the artists met with more than 50 residents of Hartranft, interviewing many of them inside their homes, capturing a multifaceted history of the courts that provided the creative scaffolding for the exhibit. The final product is one part local-history museum, one part participatory art project, and one part aspirational placemaking. Throughout the process, residents gave input on which artifacts, voices, and history were missing from the show. They met together in “story circles,” where both joyous and tragic moments in the courts’ history were discussed, including the shooting of a 17-year-old on the courts in 2014. Talking about basketball and the courts offered restorative effects that extend well beyond the sport.
“It was an amazing investment by the Sixers and Councilman [Darrell] Clarke, but for us, this was a real opportunity to talk about all the issues that touch that space, from public safety, to the loss, to teamwork and organizing,” said Aviva Kapust, executive director of the Village. “We wanted to make sure that the neighborhood had a chance to do that, so that history was not just paved over.”
In late June, a ribbon-cutting took place at the courts at Ninth and Cumberland streets, followed by a block party to kick off the public opening of the art exhibit a few blocks away at 2519 Germantown Ave, practically within shouting distance of the basketball players. For an unsung group of volunteers who had kept the basketball league alive despite weather-beaten backboards, rickety rims, and, at times, a perceived lack of safety, the promise of investment was a long time coming.
“We gave up on getting help. We created our own system,” said Bennefield. “Around 2014, I bought a barbecue grill and put that on the playground. Sometimes, we’d sell the chicken and hot dogs and hamburgers and used some of that money to maintain it. We just got it done, without any donations.”
As with any shiny upgrade, in any neighborhood, the less glamorous history of what’s come before at the Hartranft courts — like the work of individuals such as Bennefield and Jennings — risks being erased. The Village hopes to prevent that, not only through the ongoing work they’re doing with residents, but by keeping the exhibit on display in another form. It will be digitized in its entirety, and the Village plans to put a smaller version of the exhibit on display at its community storefront.
It won’t serve as a memorial to the courts’ past, but rather an enduring reminder of the community collaboration that’s come out of the whole process.
“I already knew that it was going to change. We just had to trust the process,” said Mikal Jennings, another coach. “I always knew that we were going to get our chance to be reborn.”