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In the old neighborhood of Travis Scott, locals wonder whether he is still a hero

Travis Scott speaks earlier this month during a foundation event in Houston. (Omar Vega/Getty Images)

HOUSTON — Amid the roar of nearby construction, Jorge Ornelas’s basketball hit the shiny new court, bouncing on the words “Cactus Jack” painted on the surface. He marveled at the perfection.

“On the old court, the concrete was really slippery. It’s much nicer now, you can actually play on it,” said the 20-year-old oil refinery worker who lives here in the city’s Sunnyside neighborhood.

The court was a gift of Houston native and hometown hero Travis Scott, who grew up in Sunnyside. Cactus Jack is the name of Scott’s record label and his adopted nickname. “Celebrities usually don’t come back, but he’s one of the few that actually did,” Ornelas said.

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Scott, who also has a nonprofit foundation named Cactus Jack, unveiled the basketball court at the Sunnyside Community Center just two days before he took the stage at his Astroworld Festival last Friday. The event, which was meant to be a raucous return after it was canceled last year because of the pandemic, quickly shifted from celebration to tragedy.

The rap superstar, who had spent the days before the festival unveiling several charitable contributions to the city’s residents, now finds himself in the middle of a legal and public relations firestorm after fans surged toward the stage creating panic. At least nine people died and scores were injured. The second day was canceled as Scott, promoters, city officials and others face criticism and lawsuits alleging they were not adequately prepared for the event and that they should have stopped the show sooner. Astroworld Festival was one of the deadliest concert events in U.S. history.

Scott’s upbringing in Sunnyside, a historically Black neighborhood in south Houston, had all the ingredients for mythmaking, and his rise from humble beginnings to superstardom made him the ultimate symbol of Houston pride. Astroworld Day was declared in his honor in 2018. He was given a key to the city a year later. The nearby suburb of Missouri City, where he moved after Sunnyside, designated Feb. 10 as Travis Scott Day.

In the week leading up to the festival, Scott dedicated a community garden at an elementary school blocks away from the library. He unveiled a new mural and the basketball court at the community center. He offered a basketball clinic to 75 local fifth-graders, among other public events.

He pays homage to his hometown in his music, and his 2018 album and wildly popular festival were both named Astroworld after a local storied amusement park, evoking the shared nostalgia among residents for the decades-old attraction that closed in 2005. On the Friday of the tragedy, an advertisement wrapped the pages of the Houston Chronicle. It was the poster art for two new songs Scott had dropped Thursday night. In large capital letters, it proclaimed to the city: “The dystopia is here!”

But now, the city and its residents are rethinking their relationship with Scott. Several videos from the festival show him performing as unconscious fans were being carted off on stretchers. His partner, reality television star Kylie Jenner, posted videos of his concert set where the flashing lights of ambulances could be seen in the crowd, with sirens blaring. Other footage shows fans screaming for help and begging Scott to stop. The pair has said they did not know people had died until after the show.

The brand and the culture that Scott has cultivated among his fans — or “ragers” as they are known — also are under scrutiny. His concerts are often advertised for their wild character that can often border on reckless. He has twice been arrested and charged after encouraging crowds to rush the stage. Six years ago at Lollapalooza in Chicago, he reportedly told fans to give the middle finger to security.

On Tuesday, construction workers were at the Sunnyside Community Center basketball court, where Ornelas was playing, removing Scott’s branding that was there less than a week.

Green metal fixtures designed to look like cactuses attached to the poles surrounding the court were taken down. So were the large hanging white block letters spelling out “wish you were here,” the name of the 2018 tour for his Astroworld album. On the refurbished court surface, the words “Cactus Jack” along with cactus imagery were slated to be painted over, according to one construction worker.

“I think this is the time to have critical conversations” with the musician “about not only what he wants to do with his music moving forward, but what he wants to do with his resources in the community moving forward,” said 34-year-old Randy Shelby Jr.

Shelby and Lloyd Ford own The Black Store: Beauty Supply Experience, a community hub that sells beauty supplies and has a hair and nail salon. Shelby said he has watched how Scott has remained connected to the city through shout-outs and rap songs, but said the star could have a bigger impact if he invested in things like a Black business incubator or programs that fostered civic engagement in the community.

“So a garden and a basketball court is nice, but the type of resources that Travis Scott possesses could be expanded so much more if he supplies resources in certain places,” Shelby said, referring to a campus garden Scott unveiled at a local elementary school last week.

The median household income in Sunnyside is about $25,000 and 54 percent of its residents spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, according to a Rice University report citing 2018 data.

The underserved neighborhood has also been subjected to environmental racism. It was the site of two city dumps, including one that housed an incinerator that spewed toxins. The incinerator has since closed. It is also a food desert where there is only one grocery store in the area.

Twins Bernadine and Alma Williams, born and raised in Sunnyside, said access to fresh food is a priority, and they were touched by Scott working with Young Elementary School to start a community garden.

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“I like that he has a good heart. He keeps providing the resources to the local garden, to the schools down the street,” Alma Williams said.

As they watched the workers removing all traces of Scott from the new basketball court, the twins were disappointed. “I’m not ashamed of him,” Bernadine Williams said. She later added, as if she was speaking to Scott himself, “Thank you for not forgetting about Sunnyside.”

The makeshift memorial to those who died continues to grow outside the gates of NRG Park in Houston where the concert was held. Flowers pile on top of each other. Many photos of the victims hang from the fence. There are rows of candles and scattered handwritten cards.

Alec Murff’s eyes brimmed with tears as he stared at photos of the young faces, an Astroworld hat shading his face. Murff, 33, said he knew Scott when he was young, and though he’d since lost touch with the megastar, the Houston roots they share are central to his fandom.

Murff remembers going to the Astroworld amusement park that inspired Scott’s album when he was a kid. The record felt like it was for people like him. “Travis said he was going to bring Astroworld back. He promised us,” Murff said. “And he did.”

Mandy Sanchez, 37, stopped by the memorial, also compelled to view the victims of a tragedy that had struck so close to her family. The Houston native had attended the concert with her three children, staying toward the back of the crowd. She had followed Scott’s charitable contributions across the city over the years.

“I have known him to do several events to give back to the community, and that’s why I respect him,” said Sanchez. “But I also felt like he could have done just a little bit more.”

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Friends Anna Chaikin, Marissa Quiroga and Vanessa Barrera, 17-year-old students at Cypress Creek High School, placed flowers at the memorial on a recent evening in the city.

They used to be big Scott fans. He was their hometown hero. He reaffirmed their pride in a city that was sometimes difficult to live in, while his music offered a space to let loose with a chaotic stream of rhythms, synthesized beats and strings of words where they could dance forcefully, sing loudly and simply enjoy being in the moment as teenagers.

But his songs no longer keep them in the moment. They’re pulled back to the flashing ambulance lights, to the five unconscious people they saw being carried out of the crowd last Friday night. To that unsettling feeling in the pits of their stomachs that had they been in a slightly different spot in the crowd, they might be among the injured or dead.

All three said they wouldn’t listen to him again. Emotionally, they can’t take it and, ethically, it feels wrong. “I can’t listen to any of his songs,” Quiroga said. “I don’t think I’ll ever think of him the same.”

Last year, Scott’s foundation held its Cactus Jack Christmas toy drive for Sunnyside. It provided toys, food, Christmas trees, clothing and pandemic supplies. It is unclear whether the Sunnyside Community Center will host the event this year. Its managers declined to comment.