By Peter Senzamici
February 16, 2023
UPPER EAST SIDE, NY — The skyrocketing popularity of the ball-and-paddle sport known as pickleball has sparked confrontations across the city, with parents and players swatting at each other from the West Village to Hell's Kitchen.
And like in other neighborhoods, pickleball drama has taken over Upper East Side parks, as first reported by Upper East Site, sparking a low-key turf battle between other park goers, parents, children and ardent players of the sport.
At a Community Board Eight meeting Wednesday night, the board voted to endorse a Parks Department plan to relocate, but codify, three pickleball courts established unofficially in Carl Schurz Park by a mysterious "doctor."
Pickleball courts, according to the proposal, would be made permanent and moved to the south side of the multipurpose play area, allowing for an open space between the pickleball and basketball courts, ultimately taking up less space than their current configuration.
The issue highlights one of the most enduring conditions of the densely populated Silk Stocking District: a dramatic lack of open space. Citywide, the district ranks nearly last in park and playground space per-capita.
Some think the community should look to create more open space rather than pit the interests of pickleball fans and children against each other, forcing them to fight over the small amount of open, public space currently available.
"The duty of adults"
At Wednesday night’s Community Board Eight meeting, numerous pickleball advocates, including State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright’s son, thanked the Parks Department for its proposal.
But players also asked: instead of three courts, why not four?
If placed closer together, an additional court would only take up a bit more room, they argued.
Pickleball devotee Phillis Wallach said they are also hoping to get lighting for the courts so games could go on later in the day.
“Pickleball — it's going to be the next Olympic sport. It's not a fly-by-night thing,” she told the board.
But another resident, former State Assembly Candidate Patrick Bobilin, said he found the efforts to codify the courts “troubling,” describing their efforts as “organizing to take away space from kids in Carl Schurz Park in order to play Pickleball.”
Children, Bobilin said, can’t vote and are unlikely to advocate for themselves in front of a community board meeting, giving the pickleball players a seeming advantage when lobbying for their desires.
Players told the Community Board in both meetings that players defer to kids when conflicts arise, but Bobilin said it’s not the job of young children to ask adults for space.
“That's why it's the duty of adults and the community at large to protect them, to provide for them and give them an abundance of opportunities to socialize and enjoy public space,” he said.
A lack of Upper East Side parks
City Council District Five, which encompasses the eastern portion of the neighborhood, ranks 47 out of the 51 council districts in park and playground space per resident, according to a 2015 study from New Yorkers For Parks.
Only three percent of the district is park land, the same report says. And the Upper East Side only has 1.7 acres of park and playground space for every 1000 children, far below the citywide average of 13.3 acres. And for the senior population, it’s a similar story.
Bobilin thinks that the pickleball players, instead of fighting over existing space in a neighborhood severely lacking it, should place their efforts towards creating more open space through more parks or neighborhood open streets.
“Protecting our space for kids should be our first priority, adult leisure practices falling lower on this list,” said Bobilin. “I'm asking this board to leave the park alone, and if these adults need more space, get it through open streets.”