By Daniel Katzive
When West Side Rag interviewed Riverside Park Conservancy (RPC) President Merritt Birnbaum back in January, she was excited to announce that pickleball courts were coming to Riverside Park in the summer. Summer has now arrived, and so has pickleball.
The Conservancy has laid out five courts on the lower tier of Riverside Park at about 110th Street, right between the recently renovated Andy Kessler SkatePark and a set of basketball courts. The pickleball courts have some protection from the morning sun thanks to a canopy of mature oak trees that tower above, and can benefit as well from river breezes, though players must also contend with the steady drone of cars on the West Side Highway.
The Conservancy did not formally announce the opening of the courts, but players have been quick to discover them. On Wednesday morning, West Sider Regina Brab was getting ready to hit with Louise Stocker and her son Luke, whom Brab had just met that morning on the courts. “Two weeks ago I came and I was the only person here,” says Brab. “Four days later it was packed. And the last time I was here, last week, people were waiting, and that’s fine. I mean, this has just been a great thing for the park to do.”
Brab has been playing for a year-and-a-half, but Louise and Luke Stocker are new to the sport. “We just had some lessons with friends and it’s fantastic and it’s very social,” says Louise. She and Luke had been trying to play at the CityPickle courts at Wollman Rink but had been unable to get a reservation for a court, which run between $80 and $120 depending on the time of day. They looked online and found out about the new courts in Riverside Park, which are free and operate on a first-come, first-served basis. “We thought we’d take a walk and we are pleasantly surprised. These beautiful courts in the shade, ready to go.”
The Stockers and Brab had the courts to themselves Wednesday at 9:15 a.m., but by 11 a.m., four courts were in action, even as the shade began to disappear and the temperature rose. Workers were busy building fencing to the north of the courts, which Brab said would help because previously overshooting balls traveled far and had to be retrieved.
Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the United States, according to USA Pickleball, citing the 2023 Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s Topline Participation Report. With the growing popularity has come some perhaps predictable backlash; CNN reported in March that complaints about displacement of other activities were growing nationwide, and the New York Times ran a story just last week about noise issues. But the Riverside Park courts are occupying space that never got a lot of use. As for noise, it is hard to hear much over the hum of West Side Highway traffic passing to the west. Complaints seem unlikely.