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Pucks or paddles? Already America’s fastest growing sport, the occasionally controversial pickleball has quickly taken over New York’s parks and recreational space. And with new courts planned for Hudson River Park, the Lifetime Fitness gym, and another proposed for Hell’s Kitchen Park, residents and community board members have begun to debate whether the sport should take space that could be used to honor Hell’s Kitchen’s hockey legacy.

Chris LeBrón watches the practice of the Hell’s Kitchen Rangers at Mathews-Palmer Playground. Photo: Chad R MacDonald

Last week’s Manhattan Community Board 4 (MCB4) Waterfront, Parks & Environment Committee meeting prompted a passionate debate over the takeover of pickleball, after representatives from NYC Parks proposed an extensive, $450,000 renovation of the Hell’s Kitchen Park (10th Ave bw W47/W48th St) — suggesting a replacement asphalt surface for the current basketball court, repairs and resurfacing of the handball court, the installation and removal of several benches, several trees planted and the replacement of a volleyball court with a pickleball court, with a fence to separate the spaces of play (amNY). The project is expected to begin in April and be under construction (with partial court closures) for two to three months, said NYC Parks representative Max Goodstein. 

The conversation quickly turned to the installation of the pickleball court — where, as in neighborhoods across the city, residents have squared off over precious playground and park space sometimes co-opted by gonzo pickleballers. Proponents of the sport argue that the low-impact game is inclusive for all ages and a boost to any neighborhood’s recreational ecosystem, while critics have countered that the sport only provides a moderate fitness boost and excludes space for city kids to play. 

MCB4 member Chris LeBrón argued that while he believed pickleball was a passing fad, other locally-connected sports like street hockey were here to stay and deserved the real estate. Citing the proposed fence as an unnecessary limit to space for kids to play basketball and hockey, LeBrón suggested the Parks Department should instead consider supporting Hell’s Kitchen’s historic hockey legacy. “Hockey’s a sport that is taking its roots, and street hockey necessitates just as much space as pickleball,” said LeBrón.

The West Side is known for producing NHL stars Brian and Joe Mullen, who got their start playing street hockey as children in the neighborhood’s parks — eventually catching the eye of NHL coach Emilie Francis, who would mentor the brothers from the Metropolitan Junior Hockey league to their successful NHL careers. Having watched two Hell’s Kitchen kids shine — Joe won the Stanley Cup three times and Brian played successfully for the New York Rangers and Islanders — Francis said: “It was the proudest moment I’ve ever had in hockey to see those two kids from Hell’s Kitchen make the National Hockey League.”

Hoping that future park proposals would honor the history of street hockey in Hell’s Kitchen, LeBrón told W42ST that the park, once blighted, should remain an oasis for children and children’s sports rather than the whims of “country club suburban sports for adults”. “I anticipate that this sport [pickleball] dies very quickly,” he added, “and I would like to see something that is friendlier to the children in the neighborhood that are currently using spaces allocated for handball.” 

Hell’s Kitchen Rangers currently practice at Mathews-Palmer Playground. Photo: Chad R MacDonald

Hell’s Kitchen Rangers founder and neighborhood parent Chad R MacDonald told W42ST that he would also support the future construction of street hockey rinks, adding: “The Hell’s Kitchen Rangers play on handball courts, basketball courts and even the splash pad on Pier 84 on the hottest days of the year. But we’ve never played on an actual street hockey court.

“These kids would be over the moon to play on one. Historically, street hockey has been a big part of Hell’s Kitchen. The Mullen Brothers both made it to the NHL from this neighborhood. It would be absolutely wonderful to fully revive the tradition of Hell’s Kitchen street hockey, and an area dedicated to the game would encourage both exercise and community building.”

Other meeting attendees, like community member and Hell’s Kitchen resident Katherine Hedden — who serves as a Manhattan ambassador for the USA Pickleball association — argued that pickleball should be given a fair shake as a youth support. “The beauty of pickleball is that it involves all members, all ages. It’s multi-generational and multi-age,” said Hedden. “There is a misnomer that youth in the neighborhood do not play. I lived across the street, and I’ve looked at this park since I’ve been there for four years — there is a Community Board 4 youth pickleball group of which I am involved. A friend of mine’s involved and on his 13th birthday, he had a pickleball party over at Mathews-Palmer playground, because that was the only place he could have it — and all the teenager friends came to the pickleball party.” 

Hell’s Kitchen hockey heroes Brian and Joe Mullen. Photo: Comc.com

“We’re going to agree to disagree,” said committee co-chair Leslie Boghosian Murphy about the group’s conflict over the use of the park. “It doesn’t have to be unanimous, but I think the pickleball court is [going] there,” she added. Boghosian supported the installation but told the Parks Department that she hoped other neglected parks around the neighborhood would receive the same level of repair and renovation.

“Members of the pickleball community have regularly attended our Waterfront, Parks & Environment Committee meetings advocating for space to play in our district,” Boghosian Murphy told W42ST. “Green space in our neighborhood is particularly limited so we worked hard with the NYC Parks Department to find suitable and otherwise underused spaces to accommodate this rapidly growing sport.”

“We’re glad it’s there, we’ve been advocating for it,” she added, moving the renovation proposal for approval. “We’re looking forward to seeing the use of it, and we’ll monitor the use and we’ll see how it goes — and if there’s ever a problem, we can always go back to committee.” 

Comparison of how Hell’s Kitchen Park will look before and after the work. Photos: NYC Parks presentation to MCB4

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5 Comments

  1. How is this even a debate? There are already pickleball courts 2 blocks away at Mathews-Palmer, and 8 blocks up at Clinton-Dewitt. Meanwhile there are NO hockey facilities anywhere nearby. Talk about a “fair shake”…

  2. I would prefer a hockey basketball and soccer courts as this is what the kids play in Hell’s Kitchen nit pickle ball that is for the adults why is there even a debate about this who are These people asking for the new to the neighborhood please just stop 🛑 let the kids have there hockey space

  3. My son grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and sorry I don’t remember a “history of hockey” then. I remember when the park opened, we were so happy to have it, so near to Midtown West. I don’t have a dog in this race, I’m just happy they’ve kept it up. Located along 10th Ave it has incredibly high usage and takes a lot of abuse from the traffic and exhaust. We always came home very dirty. The city needs more parks in all neighborhoods and needs to keep them green, clean, safe and maintained.

  4. Pickleball is definitely not a passing fad and is not a country club sport! NYC is slow to catch onto it–people have been playing for years in other states. Portable nets can be used as they are in Central Park. Can’t the space be used for hockey sometimes and pickleball other times? It’s popularity has surpassed tennis in many places. I wouldn’t want kids to be deprived of their sports, though.

  5. If you’re not planning your public’s spaces for your whole community you’re not fit for the job. The baseline of parks is trees and benches. If there’s nearby pickle ball courts then you make this one for hockey and other sports. It’s so obvious it’s painful.

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