The ball’s in their court.
The city must fix Sunset Park’s dilapidated handball courts so the neighborhood can reclaim its title as a mecca for the beloved game, players say. Tournament organizers contend the green space’s two courts are “unplayable” because they are so worn out, a problem that spiked a once-thriving handball community there, one said.
“In the ’90s it was the place to be. We used to host tournaments there, but it’s died out in the last few years because of the conditions,” said Manson Berkowitz, who founded the East Coast Handball Organization and lives about six blocks from the park.
The walls are pockmarked from years of use, and the rocky playing surface sends balls bouncing in wonky, unpredictable directions, players said. The crummy state of things forces serious neighborhood players to trek two miles to J.J. Byrne Playground in Park Slope so they can play high-stakes games without a crummy court interfering, another player said.
“If they fixed them, I wouldn’t have to go to Fourth Street in Park Slope to play a [competitive-level] game,” Raymond Hernandez said. “I know for sure if these courts were fixed all those players would come here.”
Courts that hold regular tournaments tend to attract better players who themselves attract aspiring aces. The neighborhood economy would benefit from a destination court, according to one avid player who brought the issue up at a recent Community Board 7 meeting.
“When there’s a tournament held, people come from all boroughs and not just to play handball — they eat, they explore the neighborhood and learn about it. It’s a huge attraction and very good for the area,” said Brian Cha, who grew up in Los Angeles, found the game during his time at school here, and very earnestly said he plans to live in New York permanently for the handball alone. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t want that.”
The city has spent $8 million on improving amenities at the neighborhood’s namesake park since 2007, including building a lighted athletic field, new bathrooms, entrances, and a playground — but it has left the handball courts to deteriorate, according to Berkowitz, a 38-year Sunset Park resident.
Rebuilding a handball wall that size costs the department $100,000–$200,000, a parks spokeswoman said. The agency will repaint the courts “as soon as possible,” and will consider renovating in the future, she said.
Meantime, locals are left to dream of recapturing their handball home land.
“You see me now, you think I’m not dying to play handball right now? I’m dying to play,” Hernandez said, standing in Sunset Park’s courts. “It’s beautiful, it’s sunny, it’s summer — this is what I was waiting for, but I can’t, nobody’s here, and nobody’s gonna come.”