Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2013, 6:00 am
Now it's Douglas Park's turn; you can help
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By Roger Ruthhart
Terry Brooks, Rock Island's 1st Ward alderman, is on a one-man mission to keep the issue of revitalizing Douglas Park alive. I'd like to jump on the bandwagon, but I would like to know where it is going first.
The issue came up back in 2009 and I was bullish on Douglas Park, located between 9th and 10th streets at 18th Avenue, and any effort to revitalize it. It had come close to being abandoned because of perceived crime in the neighborhood. Efforts didn't go far -- timing was bad, I guess, as crime concerns lingered and money sources dried up due to the recession.
"I've been told many ghosts loom over Douglas Park, where the great Jim Thorpe played professional football, where the Chicago Bears planted roots, where softball championships were renowned, where Little and Pony Leagues were formed, where I played my first little league football game and home field to me when I played at Franklin Junior High School," Mr. Brooks wrote recently in an op-ed in this paper.
"The ghosts of Douglas Park speak of the folks who brought their families to the park to enjoy the competition between children, cousins, uncles, daughters, sons, fathers and mothers," he wrote. My family is one of those.
Douglas Park started out as home to many of the city's pro and semi-pro teams. It was home field for the Rock Island Independents -- a charter member of the National Football League. Many highly competitive men's baseball teams played on its diamonds as well as some of the world's greatest softball players.
During the years I was involved in the late 80s and early 90s, the schedule was packed with baseball and softball. It was a time when every available ball diamond in the city was heavily used. There were four thriving Little League programs in Rock Island alone.
Recent years have found local leagues in decline. Traveling baseball and softball programs have siphoned off the better players and many of the volunteers who made the leagues go. Television and electronic games have stolen even more participants. Year-round school has complicated the problem.
So as we look at the future of Douglas Park, we have to ask what facilities are needed for decades ahead?
There are those like Chris Carmack who insist the future include a full-sized baseball diamond and I hear their argument. I like the idea of situating ball diamonds so the park can be multi-use -- with diamonds turned into soccer and football fields in the fall. As our community becomes more diverse, there may be increased demand for soccer, rugby, lacrosse and cricket, and less for baseball and softball.
In my mind, the greatest problem has nothing to do with perceived problems in the neighborhood and everything to do with parking. Who hasn't had their car dinged or windshield smashed by a baseball or softball with the parking lot situated in the middle of the fields? If I was restructuring, and money was no object, I'd acquire the homes between 10th and 11th streets and have the park entrance and parking off of 11th Street.
While we're dreaming, perhaps at least some of the area should include a multi-purpose facility like a sports bubble so that it can be used 12 months of the year.
If the decision is to continue to rebuild baseball and softball diamonds, then let's look beyond facilities and start with local schools, churches and the Martin Luther King Center encouraging participation, teaching fundamentals of the sports and try to repopulate our leagues. There is a lot that can be learned -- working as a team, sportsmanship, respect, loyalty and cooperation -- that has nothing to do with winning and losing.
Ssuccessful projects in the west end including Douglas Park Place; expansion of the MLK Center, development of Old Chicago Park; redevelopment of Manor Homes; Habitat Park; Cascade Garden apartments; Rock Island GROWTH's Old Chicago redevelopment and housing infill project; community gardens; and city removal of derelict structures have the area headed in a positive direction.
To his credit, Mayor Dennis Pauley made one of his first priorities a Safer Community initiative and the attention seems to have paid off. Construction of a new Walmart in the west end, and development it could trigger only helps to assure that it's time to do something about Douglas Park.
Let's start thinking about how this great location with a proud history can be used to its greatest potential. If you would like to get involved, I'm sure Ald. Brooks would welcome it. Give him a call at (309) 230-5338.
It just doesn't seem right for Spring to arrive without the crack of the bat and sounds of kids cheering at Douglas Park. Let's give those old ghosts lingering at this venerable site something to cheer about.
Roger Ruthhart is managing editor of The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus. He can be reached at email@example.com.