BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | D-Day saw the Allies storm the Normandy beaches. Now, pickleball fanatics are swarming and taking over the parks and playgrounds of Greenwich Village and other parts of Manhattan — and little kids are being shunted aside. Call it the “P-Day invasion.”
“The pickleball groups are very organized,” Ken Blacklow, a Greenwich Village dad who has been leading the anti-pickleball resistance, said ominously. “This isn’t new. This is strategic. It’s an effort to build out pickleball.”
If you read The Village Sun’s recent article about the new sports craze on thevillagesun.com (“Addicted to the pickle: New racket sport is totally whack”), you know that pickleball is sweeping Manhattan’s playgrounds and parks.
Then again, if you live near one of the new pickleball hubs, you’re probably already more than familiar — whether you like it or not — with the constant loud pinging and popping of pickleballs being smacked by rackets, along with the shouts, groans and occassional curses of players after they flub a shot. (Quiet foam balls could give relief to neighbors but players don’t use them, preferring the loud “pickle” sound, as one of them recently told The Village Sun).
Local pickleball groups have hundreds, some even more than 1,000 members. Out-of-towners are packing their paddles and coming into New York City to jump in a game — like one visiting San Franciscan recently playing pickleball at St. Vartan Park, at 35th Street and Second Avenue, who The Village Sun spoke with.
Beth Rasin, who “pickles” on the St. Vartan handball courts, complained about the Parks Department having covered over the park’s nearby blacktop softball field with astroturf, charging that it’s keeping pickleballers from claiming even more space for games. Rasin keeps a net in her building lobby for anyone in her 800-member pickleball group to use.
Pickle enthusiasts like that the sport is easy to play and very social. And as one player at St. Vartan noted, “It’s not just for the over-55 crowd.” Twentysomethings and thirtysomethings are all in on the trendy game.
However, as much as its players relish the sport, pickleball is leaving a sour taste in the mouths of some local parents, who say their kids are getting squeezed out of their traditional play spaces.
Things came to head last Thursday when a group of Greenwich Village parents — about a half dozen — turned out at the monthly Community Board 2 full-board meeting to rail against pickleballers increasingly dominating Seravalli Playground, at Horatio and Hudson Streets. The parents seethed that the adult players are brazenly painting down their own lines for their courts — without official permission — and hogging the space from tykes, who now can no longer ride their trikes and bikes and play in those areas.
Some parents reportedly wonder where exactly local Councilmember Erik Bottcher stands on the issue — since he has appeared in at least one selfie with the alleged leader of the local pickleball invasion, a woman named Katherine Hedden. Then again, though, as one parent noted, Bottcher takes a lot of selfies with people.
The Village Sun reached out to Bottcher after the C.B. 2 meeting but he did not respond. However, he subsequently did quickly post a statement on social media, saying that pickleballers’ blacktop grab “isn’t cool.”
“Pickleball has exploded in popularity and that’s great,” Bottcher said. “But competition for space at playgrounds has caused tension. Families are angry b/c pickleball players are drawing their own courts on space used by children. This isn’t cool, and we’re working with @NYCParks on solutions.”
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Hedden — whom Blacklow described as “the ambassador of pickleball to Manhattan” — did not respond to a message sent to her Instagram page.
The next morning after the C.B. 2 meeting, Parks Department workers were promptly out at Seravalli Playground with graffiti-removal materials to erase the lines for unauthorized pickleball courts that had been painted on the blacktop. However, they left two existing courts there, to the chagrin of the local parents group, who say none of the pickleball courts ever received buy-in from the larger community. The Village Sun has heard from a source that Parks ultimately plans to add two more permanent pickleball courts there — for a total of four.
Mar Fitzgerald, a C.B. 2 member and lifelong Westbeth Artists Housing resident, happened to be passing Seravalli on her way to Chelsea Market when she saw the Parks workers removing the pickleball court lines.
“The parents want the pickleball courts gone,” Fitzgerald said. “They don’t want anyone playing pickleball in Horatio. It’s such a huge footprint for pickleball,” she said of the racket players’ current sprawl at the space.
On some days, the pickleballers take over the entire playground — with up to 14 nets set up for courts for a recent tournament — Fitzgerald said. Meanwhile, her young daughter, Reagon, 12, is one of the kids who loves to play in Seravalli.
“She plays basketball, rides her skateboard, bike and scooter, and these are things that can’t really happen if there are these huge pickleball courts.”
As the little kids and adult pickleballers have invariably come into close contact, tensions have flared, and not just on the parents’ side — but among pickleballers, as well. Some of the pickleballers have been posting complaints about the young kids, some even slamming them as “rich brats.” Although the players contend the local playgrounds are underused, insulting local kids clearly isn’t generating any goodwill.
While the fate of Seravalli may still be up in the air, Passannante Playground, at West Houston Street and Sixth Avenue, sounds like it will soon be fully consumed by voracious pickleballers.
“Passannante is done, I’ve been told,” Fitzgerald said.
“Passannante has literally been transformed into all-pickleball,” Blacklow said. “If you look at the lines that have been painted there, it is a complete takeover of the space.”
The Village Sun reached out to a Parks Department spokesperson back in May, asking what exactly the city’s policy is on pickleball and also about the noise from the sport’s plastic polymer balls.
“Basically, is there any pickleball policy by Parks right now, or is it kind of on a case-by-case, park-by-park basis?” the newspaper asked. “Has Parks been dealing with any noise complaints from pickleball, or mainly just dealing with the issue of trying to fill the need for more space for pickleball?”
Parks did not respond then, and also has not responded to another e-mail from the newspaper this past Friday that asked about: “the ‘takeover’ of two Greenwich Village Parks Department spaces — Seravalli Park and Passannnante Playground — by adult pickleballers.”
“Local parents are very concerned,” The Village Sun wrote to Parks, “especially in the case of Seravalli Park…saying Servalli is ‘non-permitted, open, unstructured’ space and that the two [pickleball] courts that have been added were done so with no community notification. Now, [people are] hearing the Parks Dept. wants to add two more pickleball courts there. Can you give…an update on what the Parks plan is for Seravalli and Passannante in terms of pickleball? Is there any plan?”
This last e-mail was sent to Megan Moriarty, the former Parks press officer — who, a Parks official informed The Village Sun after this article’s publication — actually left the department a few months ago. No doubt, her e-mails were being forwarded to someone, though. The Village Sun is still awaiting a response.
The Parks Department does include a pickleball section on its Web site, but none of the sport’s local hot spots, like Seravalli, Passannante and St. Vartan Park, are mentioned on it. Instead the page steers people wanting to learn the “fast-paced, fast-growing paddle game” toward Parks recreation centers.
A site called NYC Pickleball, however, does list Seravalli, Passannante and St. Vartan, as well as Sol Lain Playground on the Lower East Side.
Jeannine Kieley, the chairperson of C.B. 2, said the board only started getting word of the pickleball problems early last week. The board’s former district manager, Bob Gormley, recently retired and has not yet been replaced, and Kiely found herself answering phones at the board office last Monday, which is when she fielded a complaint about the issue from an angry parent.
Kiely noted she has seen the pickleballers in Vesuvio Playground, at Thompson and Spring Streets, near where she lives.
As she spoke to The Village Sun during a phone interview, Kiely, doing a little online research, looked around to see how much pickleball nets cost.
“One hundred and nine dollars and it looks like a yoga bag,” she said of the cheapest one she found and how it packs up neatly into a relatively small carrying case.
So, not only is pickleball much easier to play than tennis — anyone can dink a plastic ball over a low net from a few feet away — but it’s also affordable, which also helps explain the sport’s exploding popularity.
Kiely said C.B. 2 doesn’t have an official position on the pickleball predicament in the playgrounds yet, basically, because the issue just erupted last week, so the board hasn’t had the chance to properly look at in a well-considered manner. There will be a meeting on the issue on Oct. 17.
“The [C.B. 2] Parks Committee will take it up next month,” Kiely said. “First we have to gather all the facts. Obviously, we hear a lot about that park,” she said of Seravalli. “My kids grew up playing there.”
Blacklow noted that, ironically, he and his sons — and many other locals, too — enjoy playing pickleball. But he stressed that it can’t be at the expense of little kids’ recreational space.
“I am a pickleball player — but it’s these kids’ park,” he said. “Seravalli Playground has been around for over 60 years and it was built as a place for children to play and climb. It’s unstructured, open space for children to play.”
The late Tony Dapolito — who was known as the “Mr. Parks” of C.B. 2 — personally created the playground. Looking at an old warehouse on the site one day, he hit upon the idea of tearing it down to open up the space for local kids.
Blacklow taught his oldest son to ride a bike at Seravalli and also “to learn how to be on his own, play by his own.” Now, his youngest son, a 13-year-old, and his friends likes to play “manhunt,” a tag game, there.
However, Blacklow said of the erstwhile idyllic kids’ spot, “all that changed” last November when the two initial pickleball courts were painted — “with no community notice.”
“At first, it seemed like a friendly addition,” he recalled. But things soon got out of control. The boom really first became noticeable this past spring.
“This has exploded in the past few months,” Blacklow said. “I personally have witnessed nine courts on the blacktop. But others have witnessed 12 courts or more — and 12 take over literally all the blacktop. People were putting down chalk lines, using tape. On a decent day, you could see 12 courts and well over 100 people either playing or waiting to play — and that is a complete takeover of the space.”
Blacklow said that, traditionally, there was a natural and easy overlapping of activities on the blacktop — but that can no longer happen with the pickleball courts out there.
“When kids are riding bikes and throwing balls in the park, they can cross around and cross each others’ space all the time,” he said. “It’s an open space.”
Meanwhile, Passannante Playground, he noted, is a “permitted space,” meaning that organized sports and activities can apply for permits for use of the blacktop there or parts of it, as local schools and the Greenwich Village Little League T-ballers do.
As a result of the swarms of pickleballers at Seravalli, he said, “Now kids don’t want to go in the park. They don’t feel safe and they don’t feel welcome. It’s not their space anymore. It’s not right.”
Blacklow said when he recently told a group of four women pickleball players at Servalli that they should go to Passannante Playground, they were stunned.
“They said the lines are too long at Houston Street and ‘we don’t want to wait,'” he said. “‘They looked like they had never been told no in their lives.”
He said the pushy pickleballers even tried to get more courts at Seravalli included in last year’s participatory budgeting process for Council District 3, in which district residents get to vote for funding for local capital projects.
“It wasn’t chosen” for the PB ballot items, he said. “It was for four to six separate, fenced-in permanent nets. Kids wouldn’t be able to go through it.”
Racket from the pickleball rackets is starting to become an issue, too, he said, noting, “What I understand is people who live around there are starting to get annoyed at the noise.”
Ultimately, Blacklow said parents want zero pickleball courts in Seravalli. Meanwhile, he said, he’s heard plans are in the works to create a “pickleball mecca” along the West Side somewhere “between the 20s and 40s [blocks].” That might be referring to the area along the Hudson River near the Circle Line dock, where there is a large expanse of vacant blacktop.
As for Greenwich Village’s parks and playgrounds, though, the concerned dad said locals need to be given their say.
“Here, no one’s being given a chance on what it’s being used for,” he said of the Downtown blacktops. “There’s no input from the community — even though plenty of people in the community play pickleball, which is so ironic.”