Reflections from Hamilton Fish Park

Squash at Hamilton Fish Park
A picture I took while leaving the park. The white box is the public squash court.

Last summer, I joined a group of about 75 people to watch an exhibition squash match at the first outdoor public squash court in New York City. Former World #1 and squash legend Nick Matthew was playing American up-and-comer Andrew Douglas. If this were tennis, this would be pretty close to the Federer-Isner match, except that since it’s squash, 75 people showed up instead of 1,000.

The exhibition was to bring attention to the first free, outdoor public squash court in New York City, in Manhattan’s Hamilton Fish Park, a beaux-arts jewel in the chain of public parks built in New York City in the early 20th century. The park is surrounded by hi-rise public housing, squat, hulking and indifferent.

As a native New Yorker, I love finding new neighborhoods and I’m always struck by how different worlds coexist next to each other, marked by invisible borders of class, race and unspoken signals. While I’d never been to the Park, I spent two years going to a yoga class six blocks away on Clinton Street, and would eat an Italian lunch after each class. I’m more than an observer of separation, I’m a participant.

The afternoon was a coming together of different worlds, creating as many questions as answers for me.

The public court is, of course, privately funded. It is innovative and technologically advanced – it plays like a wood-floored squash court but is impervious to snow, rain and heat. The privately-raised funds were to demonstrate that squash could be a public game. It’s an effort by squash lovers to democratize access to an historically elite, blue-blood sport. Since squash is one of the few niche sports left that can get you a ticket to an ivy league college, it’s a laudable endeavor.

And yet the court is miniscule in the context of the park, dwarfed by the public space and the 50×25 yard swimming pool built by Robert Moses, one of the most powerful men of his era (who, of course, worked in the public sector). The pool itself was funded by the Works Project Administration, one of 10 $1 million pool projects started in 1936 ($18 million today) for the city parks. This pool, over the decades, has vacillated between the pristine state it is in today and, in the 1970s, a dangerous place to buy and sell drugs. There are no simple answers.

Back to the squash match on that hot summer afternoon. For an hour or two, worlds come together: a group of Squash fans from the 1%, kids from CitySquash, a not for profit that is bringing squash to urban schools, and the park regulars going about their business, playing basketball and splashing in the pool.

We were all quietly other occupying the same space, not quite connecting or interacting but at least in physical proximity.

It reminded me of an unspoken truth of modern social change work: that the “exciting,” “innovative,” and privately funded now idea is often nice but small relative to the greater forces of public spending, public spaces, social fabric, and community. It felt metaphorical to witness this positive, new-style, small charity project in a revived, old-style public park that itself is nestled on the Lower East Side, the corner of Manhattan where wave after wave of immigrants arrived, struggled and, often, eventually thrived.

I left that afternoon seeing the strengths and limitations of both the old and the new approaches, and wondering what it will take for us to do more than comfortably and habitually occupy our own spaces: how do we actively and deliberately make the best of these spaces come together?

Most days, even if we’re in social change work, we are like the two neighborhoods right next to each other: the fancy yoga studio five blocks away from public housing. We frequent our respective places, are generally positive and well-intentioned people, but we don’t talk to each other.

Sometimes we do a bit better, like we did that afternoon: two worlds occupied the same space and peacefully, albeit inoffensively, coexisted.

Rarely, though, do we really stop to interact with each other.

Rarely do we take the time to intentionally learn from each other.

Rarely do we notice how much those who came before us have to offer.

Hamilton Fish Park
New York Times article on Hamilton Fish Park from June 21, 1936.