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.
In 2012, neighbors including Tetu gathered to take back their neighborhood. About the same time, quite fortuitously, SPUT took over a small space in the closed Eastview recreation center to store equipment.
That summer, Cantellano began a pilot evening tennis program at St. Paul’s Arkwright Park, also in a struggling neighborhood. “We knew that many at-risk kids were in summer school during the day, and we wanted to make sure that our program reached them,” she said.
The program was so successful that the city requested a similar program at Eastview in 2013. “We went into it … I don’t know if we were blind, but the first week [at Eastview] we had some concerns,” Cantellano said.
Coach Pana Vue, 19, remembers walking alone her first night to get equipment and being verbally harassed by a group of men. From then on, patrol cars drove by regularly. Coaches showed up and bonded enthusiastically with the kids. Mothers watched from their cars.
“As the summer went on, I became less and less scared,” Vue said. Best of all, she saw changes in the kids. She remembers two siblings who, for the first time, were allowed to walk alone to the park with walkie-talkies. Another child showed up every day for four weeks. Finally, his mother registered him.
The lessons at Eastview went far beyond serving.
“All sports teach good sportsmanship,” Cantellano said. “But, in tennis, you call your own lines. That teaches kids to call the ball correctly, to be honest. Either you’re going to be a cheater or you’re not.”
And something else: “There’s no clock in tennis, which promotes perseverance,” she said. “You always have an opportunity to come back and win.”
That goes for kids — and communities.
“Early on it was like: Who’s going to win? Are we going to be able to run urban tennis or are they going to stop it?” Cantellano said. “Last year was a huge change,” she said, noting that the program (stpaulurbantennis.org) returns in June to Eastview and will be added to Central Village in Frogtown.
Tetu agrees. “What is so cool is that, when little kids are doing the stretch drill, they’re really motivated and people are laughing. That was what was missing from the park,” Tetu said.
“Joy. We finally hear laughter in the park.”
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum