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.



While the biggest highlight of my trip to Karachi last week was definitely meeting all the applicants to the Pakistan Fellows Program, the most fun and surprising piece was getting to play squash twice during the week.

Pakistan has an incredibly illustrious history in squash – Pakistan dominated the sport for nearly five decades, starting in 1951 when Hashim Khan, a former squash coach in the British Army, won the British open (dominating then champion Mahmoud Karim of Egypt 9-5, 9-0, 9-0), and carrying through the reign of Jahangir Khan, considered by many to be the greatest player ever to play the sport – he won the Squash World Open six times and the British open 10 times, and had a 555 match winning streak from 1981 to 1986.  Unfortunately since 1998, when Jansher Khan was defeated in the finals of the British open, squash has fallen from prominence in Pakistan, but there remains a proud history and tradition in Pakistani squash.

And so, the day I arrived in Karachi, after 20 hours of flights and then heading straight to the office to work, I was particularly excited when my Acumen colleague Humza Khan dusted off his squash racquet and took me out for a game.  As I told Humza, on my spectrum of ways to spend a first night on the road, if the bottom of the spectrum is being alone in a hotel room ordering room service and watching crummy TV (and not being able to sleep because of jetlag), pretty near the top of the spectrum is getting to play a good game of squash with some (new) friends.

Yes, Karachi can feel very foreign, but to get the chance, within 12 hours of arrival, to step on a squash court with a colleague and then rotate through games with a bunch of other guys who were playing…at that moment when you’re on the court, everything else drops away and you are just two people playing a sport that you love, interacting as equals and using the shared vocabulary of a game.  And in that moment you glimpse and feel your shared humanity with ease.

It made me think that it would be fabulous if it were easier to travel places and find a great squash match, cricket game, game of pick-up football, you name it.  What better way to really get to know a place?

After our game that night, Humza (who does amazing work with youth football in Karachi) and I got to talking about sport, and he shared that the only time Pakistan feels and acts truly like a nation – and not tribes or sects or groups with regional differences – is when Pakistan plays a cricket match.

In sport we are human, and for a few brief moments all that makes us different is stripped away.   I wonder how we might access that feeling and spirit more often.


Glenn Urban at MIT teaches us about the importance of the power of trust.  Glenn observes, as have many others, that we have shifted from a mass-media, high promotion world (that effectively ended at the start of this decade) to one focused on relationships and two-way communications.  In this new world, the single most important thing that matters is trust.   (For more on this shift, check out Clay Shirkey’s TED@State talk, below)

Ironically, building trust is easier than it looks – be generous, act consistently, and make promises that you can and do keep.   (The harder part is doing this within an organization that has thrived on another way of doing business for decades.  But it’s important to remember that being trustworthy really isn’t difficult at all).

For example:

I’ve been playing with an out-of-production squash racquet for about three years now.  Since squash is played in an indoor court with cement walls, the racquets break often, so it’s common to go through 1-2 racquets a year.  Since my racquet model (a yellow-and-black Dunlop Hot Melt, if anyone knows where I can still dig one up) is out of production, I’m down to a single racquet, and I’ve no choice but to buy a new model – with a different feel that will play differently.

Squash is a niche sport in most places, including New York, and it’s hard to find stores that sell squash racquets, and harder still to find stores that demo racquets (let you pay to rent a racquet for a day or two before deciding which to buy).

A fellow player recommended Grand Central Racquet, and I went there this afternoon and met Tony, the store’s owner.  Together, we picked two racquets for me to demo.  I was a little rushed, hoping to catch a train, and was dreading the inevitable swiping of my credit card, preapproval of $300+ on my card (the value of the two racquets), maybe even making a copy of my drivers license…all the necessary evils of walking out of the store with a few hundred dollars worth of unpaid-for merchandise.

I’ve been trained so effectively by our trust-free world that I was beside myself when Tony took out a pad of paper, wrote down my name, my phone number, and the models of the two racquets I’m going to demo, and asked for $10 (cash was fine).  No approvals, no verification, no nothing.  “Enjoy them, and we’ll see you on Wednesday,” was all he said.

Why does this work for Tony?  How does he know I’m not going to run off with the racquets?  Did he make some sort of judgment call about me personally (I doubt it) or is this just how he runs his business?

The point is, he is taking a risk.  But he’s decided that being generous and trusting of me in a way that never happens in the big city in the 21st century makes sense.  And by giving me this gift, he’s taking someone who could be a lifelong customer – but who has the option of buying online for 20% less – and giving that person a reason to be loyal to him.

I’m sure the lawyers and the rule-makers and the people whose job it is to say ‘no’ would tell Tony that he’s crazy, and maybe he is.  But if trust is all that really matters today, if success is about building communities of trust, and if trust can be established so quickly and easily, we all need to find ways to act a little more like Tony, and we’ll have to break some rules to get there.

Do you have any great trust-building stories you’d like to share?

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