BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Along with the incessant, loud “plunk!” of its plastic balls, Pickleball is generating strong passions in Greenwich Village. Its players, of all ages, love the fast-growing paddle sport and are scrambling to find sufficient court space wherever they can. But local kids and parents at Seravalli Playground a.k.a. “Horatio Playground,” at Hudson and Horatio Streets, for one, charge that the pickleballers are invading the traditionally open and unprogrammed space, and that the kids are losing out.
A change.org petition launched three weeks ago by a group called Families United for Open Play, and demanding that pickleball be banned at the West Village playground, had garnered more than 3,100 signers as of this article’s publication. The petition is supported by the area’s four largest youth sports organizations, including Downtown United Soccer Club, Greenwich Village Little League, Downtown Giants (flag football) and Steady Buckets (basketball).
“The unique, wide-open blacktop area is the only dedicated and protected, expansive play area where children can freely move in all of the West Village and Greenwich Village,” the petition states of the 60-year-old playground. “Horatio Park was a vital community gathering place and the heart and soul of life for many West Village children and families, a haven they have peacefully shared with other adult users, such as rollerbladers, basketball players and skateboarders, as well as residents of all ages who choose to walk through the space and soak in the microcosm of urban family life it contains.”
The petition ends with the demand to the Parks Department: “Immediately end all pickleball at Horatio Park and return the playground to its intended use — an inclusive, multiuse community space for free play.”
Broad pickleball pushback
The sports leagues charge that the national pickleball association is coaching local representatives to try to persuade the Parks Department that Seravalli and other Village playgrounds are “underutilized.” However, Ken Blacklow, a Village dad and leading critic of the pickleball invasion of Seravalli, said the petition, in how it is being backed by local youth groups, speaks for itself.
“The support of these organizations shows that accessible, open playground spaces to run and play freely are crucial to the well-being of kids,” he said. “In addition, it shows that the pushback isn’t limited to just a few parents. It includes the support of all the organizations and communities — like the skateboarding community — that rely on these kinds of playgrounds for kids to engage in a plethora of activities, not just one activity.”
Blacklow provided an aerial map of Seravalli with pickleball courts marked out on it, to show the extent of the takeover that often happens.
“Any time on a sunny weekend, there are 10 to 12 courts set up,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Meanwhile, The Village Sun had a sit-down two weeks ago with Katherine Hedden, Manhattan’s leading pickleball advocate, to hear her side of the story more thoroughly. A few days earlier, the newspaper had reported on the “pickleball panic” in the Village. The Sun had reached out to Hedden through her Instagram page for comment for that article. However, Hedden — who is an artist and retired former post-production editor at ABC News — said she rarely checks Instagram, other than to post photos of her artwork on it, and did not see the message until after that initial article’s publication.
Official pickleball ambassador
Hedden proudly said that since 2018 she has been the “pickleball ambassador” for Manhattan for the U.S.A. Pickleball Association. She drew a clear distinction between her efforts to help methodically grow the sport in the borough and find more space for courts versus what she called “rogue” players who randomly invade playgrounds and set up their nets.
Hedden, who is also a pickleball instructor, said there are official pickleball ambassadors everywhere throughout the country.
“They promote the sport of pickleball,” she said. “There are massive numbers — we’re all over.”
Pickleball takes Manhattan
Dressed in a charcoal-gray athletic outfit with pink trim, Hedden, who lives on the Upper East Side, was on her way next to The Vessel in Hudson Yards, to participate in a pickleball pop-up there with two Long Island City women pickleball entrepreneurs. The pair aim to open an indoor pickleball place with four courts and a bar/restaurant in Manhattan called Drink and Dink, referring to pickleball’s “killer” drop shot over the net.
Basically, Hedden openly advocates at every opportunity for more space for pickleball courts. For example, she noted that a couple of years ago she attended a meeting at Community Board 6 to try to stop the Parks Department from covering the St. Vartan Park blacktop ball field, at 35th Street between Second and First Avenues, with artificial-grass turf.
“We tried to say that they’re taking away 12 pickleball courts,” she recalled.
Another spot she has identified for possibly two permanent pickleball courts is Hell’s Kitchen Park, at 47th Street and 10th Avenue.
Central Park’s North Meadow Recreation Center, meanwhile, is slated for two permanent, dedicated pickleball courts (with permanent nets), plus three multipurpose courts.
“If you go to Central Park, there are 100 people waiting: ‘Paddles down,’ we call it,” she said, referring to how players lay their paddles in a row to mark their space in line for a court.
Pickleball night games
According to Hedden, the Hudson River Park Trust also plans next year to provide four dedicated pickleball courts in the West 30s blocks by the river that will have permanent nets. These courts, she said, will also boast solar-powered lights, so pickleballers can play into the evening, though not past the park’s curfew. There are currently two pickleball courts in Hudson River Park, but players must bring their own nets. The Trust, however, is not taking away any space from the popular tennis courts at Canal Street.
There is also a lot of pickleball being played indoors at Parks Department recreation centers around the city, she added. Some pickleball-crazed Manhattanites are even leaving the island to find space to play the sport, such as in Hoboken or at Brooklyn’s Pier 2.
So, clearly, pickleball is making rapid inroads, especially in Manhattan. However, Seravalli, she noted, is “a different case.”
‘Pickleball is here’
“Everyone else has realized pickleball is here,” she said, “and they’re co-existing in one way or another. Even at St. Vartan, if four groups are playing pickleball and there’s someone wanting to play tennis [against one of handball court walls], they give them the court.”
The Parks Department has provided two pickleball court spaces at Seravalli Playground — however, this use of the space never went through any public review and so was never officially approved by Community Board 2.
Hedden acknowledged there are lots of overlapping uses at Seravalli — but she indicated that kickball, not pickleball, is the real danger. She personally was seriously hurt by a kickball league player there while she was watching a pickleball match.
“I got injured and sent to the hospital,” she said. “A kickball league was there twice a week. A guy was going for a home run and knocked me on my back.”
According to Hedden, the Parks Department subsequently kicked the kickballers out of the playground because they had deceptively gotten a permit for basketball, but then used it for kickball.
Portable nets enable ‘rogues’
However, beyond the two courts marked off by Parks at Seravalli, rogue players have also invaded the playground. Hedden said they’re aided by the fact that pickleball nets are light and very portable.
“You ever see someone carrying a tennis net?” Hedden asked. “Pickleball nets are light. You carry them like you carry groceries.”
Things came to a head at Seravalli on Sept. 17 when, as she put it, “The parents were just going crazy at me. This blonde woman and someone else were literally in my face. I said they couldn’t talk to me like that. I did talk with a dad who was calm. It was a Saturday morning — it does get crazy down there. I heard there were problems. I went down there — and when I saw all the courts that were chalked [with lines for pickleball], I was flabbergasted.”
Hedden subsequently talked with a Parks deputy commissioner and proposed that two more pickleball courts be added at Seravalli, for a total of four. The Parks official reportedly told her that the department has been doing “surveys of traffic flow” at the park for the past year. Hedden is suggesting the two new courts be placed perpendicular to the existing ones.
“I have no problem with calling Park Enforcement Police,” Hedden said of the rogue players. However, she added, “It’s not my job to police. I am not responsible for the rogue guys with their nets. … A lot of those 30-year-old men are arrogant.” She also described them as Wall Street types.
Slams ‘kamikaze kids’
Hedden, in the reader comments in The Village Sun’s previous “pickleball panic” article, dropped a pretty inflammatory statement, accusing some Greenwich Village parents of intentionally sending their kids in to disrupt pickleball games, and that this behavior should, in fact, be investigated by “Child Services,” the city’s Administration for Children’s Services.
“Parents [are] using the children to throw balls and picnic on the two designated courts painted by the Parks Department,” Hedden posted. “Child Services should be called.”
In the interview with The Village Sun, she didn’t back away from her statement.
“They sent their kids on the court to throw balls at us, kickballs, footballs,” she said of the Sept. 17 blacktop clash. “Then the one kid was throwing his ball at the net. I said, ‘If you break the net, I’m calling the police.’ He said, ‘Are you going to call the police on a kid?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I will, you’re damaging property.’ And the father came over and said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I said, ‘You’re letting your kid damage property.’ He just stared at me. He called Park Enforcement. I helped the Park Enforcement clear the space. I told the Park Enforcement, ‘You’re going to have to come every weekend.’”
Finally, according to the ambassador, one “angry dad” stood on one of the pickleball courts during the face-off and allegedly told her, “I’m not moving — we want you gone.” Hedden said she “couldn’t deal with it” anymore and left.
Not backing down
“But I won’t back down,” Hedden vowed to The Village Sun. “I’m not going to advocate for getting rid of those two courts. We want to work together.”
At another point, she said, “It’s been their community park and now they have to open it up. People don’t like change in that area,” she added, meaning the Village.
Passannante Playground, at Houston Street and Sixth Avenue, is also heavily used by pickleballers. However, there’s currently no petition there, like at Seravalli, to kick out the players. But that doesn’t mean it’s been smooth “pickling” there, either.
“Oh, there’s been friction,” Hedden assured.
The main difference is that while Passannante is a “permitted” playground — meaning permits are needed for larger, organized sporting events — Seravalli does not require permits and is instead slated for “open use,” which parents say is perfect for young kids to play freely and safely.
The pickleballers — at least some of them — pay for a seasonal permit at Passannante. It’s where Hedden herself usually plays.
“Passannante is the only permitted pickleball court in Manhattan,” she said. “We have a permit.”
Passannante kid was P’d off
This past summer, Hedden and a group of women played at the Houston playground on three or four pickleball courts on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. But some local kids didn’t like it, Hedden said, noting that once, after she and a father had words, a 12-year-old defiantly peed on the wall of Villa Mosconi restaurant that’s adjacent to the playground.
“Because he didn’t even like that we were telling him to stay on the west side of the asphalt,” she scoffed. “I said, ‘I have a permit.’ The father said, ‘Well, they’re kids.’ I said, ‘Don’t start with me.’ The parents put the kids up to this bad behavior. They’re teaching them to behave this way. I raised two kids. If you can’t teach your kids to negotiate, is your kid going to be a Ted Cruz or a Jim Jordan?”
This summer the city painted nine pickleball courts at Passannante for a tournament. But she said Parks plans to resurface the playground and is saying it will only put back two of the courts.
“We’re going to fight to keep it at nine,” she said. “We’re going to try to keep as many as we can. So it’s in negotiation.”
Not just for white people
Hedden also slapped down the notion that pickleball is an all-white sport.
“They’re all white down here,” she conceded. “But we have a lot of minorities playing and in other areas — just not the West Village.”
Meanwhile, Hedden declared that young kids are now joining the pickleball games at Seravalli and enjoying it.
“The community’s not happy — they think it’s their park,” she said. “But pickleball’s not going away.”
LeBron is in, too
“It’s going to be an Olympic sport in two years,” she added. “LeBron James just bought a team — there’s a professional pickleball league. Last week, I played with a 16-year-old and an 80-year-old who had a heart transplant — that’s the beauty of the sport.”
She showed on her phone how the players organize using an app called TeamReach, noting, “The whole pickleball community works off of this.” As of two weeks ago, the Central Park pickleball group had 1,782 members, Seravalli 1,018 members, Passannante 993 and St. Vartan 800. A Facebook page, NYC Pickleball Manhattan, that she maintains has 1,600 members.
As for the selfie of herself and Councilmember Erik Bottcher that Hedden posted on her Instagram that has raised the ire of pickleball foes, Hedden said it’s a few years old, actually taken when Bottcher was still Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s chief of staff.
“That was from the 9th Avenue Food Festival in Hell’s Kitchen — before COVID,” she said. “I saw him and introduced myself. I said, ‘Is there anything you can do for pickleball?’”