Hamilton Fish Park, a 116-year-old space on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is getting a thoroughly modern upgrade later this month when one of its two handball courts is converted into a state-of-the art, all-weather outdoor squash court.
Public squash courts are a rarity in New York City. Most facilities exist in private clubs whose memberships cost hundreds of dollars a month, lending to the sport’s larger preppy problem: Outside of college students and the wealthy in America, most people don’t have access to squash courts anywhere (or don’t know that they do).
Alex Wakefield Wessner, Shawn Dragann, and Ryan Underwood Wall, founders of the Public Squash Foundation (PSF), wanted to change that. Last year they pitched the Department of Parks and Recreation on their idea: building a squash court on one of the city’s more than 2,000 handball courts, many of which are underutilized. City officials liked the project and picked the spot. “Hamilton Fish Park is located in a densely populated neighborhood and is surrounded by numerous schools, giving kids the opportunity to be exposed to a sport that they may not have had the chance to try,” a Parks Department spokesperson says.
The PSF trio, who worked together at Digitas Health, started playing squash with each other almost a decade ago in Philadelphia and fell in love with the game. Their friendship developed on the court, and they began talking about how they could help encourage more people to pick up their adopted game. The need was obvious: more courts.
Dragann, Wall, and Wessner raised more than $70,000 through PSF’s website and from other fundraisers, and received an interest-free loan of $30,000 from a supporter of the project to make it happen. The court, which will stay up for a year, costs around $85,000 to install and includes safety glass and subfloor drainage mats to make it viable outside. It’s designed by specialty court manufacturer ASB specifically for the project, which gives PSF added validation. “The Professional Squash Association uses ASB courts for their matches,” Wessner says. “US Squash uses them, too.”
The court is 100 percent public, with no booking systems and what Wall describes as “pretty much street rules” when it comes to getting on to play. Anyone who brings their own equipment can play for free. People without squash rackets will have access to free rentals after joining the nearby Hamilton Fish Recreation Center for $100 per year.
For its founders, the court on the Lower East Side is hopefully just the beginning for the public squash project. The crew plans to keep tabs on the court’s activity via a time-lapse camera and hopes to show the success of the idea through high usage. After a year, PSF and the Parks Department will reassess. “There are no plans in place to install another court at this time, but we would be open to a second installation pending the success of this project,” says a Parks Department spokesperson. “We look forward to offering New Yorkers a new and different way to stay fit and enjoy parks.” (Forbes has called squash the healthiest sport, as players can burn more than 800 calories an hour.)
Dragann, Wall, and Wessner plan to take the public squash concept farther afield, too. They want to get the cost per court below the currently “unscalable” $85,000, but there’s definitely interest—they’ve already received requests from cities including Philadelphia, Los Angeles, São Paulo, and Paris, as well as locations as far away as Australia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. “Weekly, we get people e-mailing asking if we can bring a court to their parks,” Wall says. “The idea is to build as many as possible.”