Progress can be measured in many ways. Kevin Tetu measures it in beer bottles.
Tetu, 58, has counted just six empty bottles strewn in recent months onto the grass and playground at Eastview Recreation Center near his home in St. Paul. That’s a big dip from years past, when drop-ins to the park treated the place like a big open garbage can.
Gang graffiti is rarer, too, as are drug deals behind the center building, Tetu said.
This place is no Disneyland. Tetu has to step over a dog’s business on the tennis courts to show a visitor around. The courts sure could use resurfacing, too.
But Tetu, who has lived near this park for 16 years, is amazed at how much has changed for the better. “People are starting to feel safe,” he said.
Largely because of tennis.
About two years ago, St. Paul Urban Tennis (SPUT), a program created in 1991 to teach sportsmanship, discipline and life skills to youth, took over two rooms at Eastview, filling them with tennis rackets and balls in multiple colors, tennis shoes and T-shirts, and fun trinkets to reward good behavior.
One room also is stocked with children’s books for a summer reading program.
In June of 2013, SPUT began offering Eastview neighborhood kids free evening tennis lessons. Fifty-three kids signed up.
Since its inception, SPUT has grown from one to 30 sites, plus “pop-up nets” at apartments and parking lots, and now serves 3,000 St. Paul youths ages 5 to 18. Many of the nonprofit program’s 80 coaches grew up participating in it.
Still, recruiting kids for Eastview posed challenges, said executive director Becky Cantellano.
Many parents were suspect that the program really was free and had to be assured many times over that it was. Kids arrived wearing flip flops because they didn’t own tennis shoes. And many families didn’t want their kids anywhere near this particular park.
“I didn’t know any of this was going on,” said Cantellano, who came to SPUT in 2012, after 10 years with the U.S. Tennis Association.
Ironically, the tennis courts are what first wooed Tetu to the neighborhood. “I thought, if I had grandkids, they could go across the street and play,” he said. Instead, Tetu watched the park spiral down, with drug deals, fights between rival high schoolers, public urination, swearing and harassment of mothers and children.
Tetu sometimes called the cops and sometimes took matters into his own hands, stepping into the street, for example, to slow down speeding cars. “You’re not doing this here,” he’d say.
Things got better, then worse again. Many neighbors moved away. Houses went into foreclosure. The park building was shuttered due to budget cuts, and families stayed away from the once cheery playground.
Tetu, an educator, hated to see it. “They’re taking all these things away from our children,” he said.