Water Tower pickleball extends many benefits to Philadelphians and the broader community.
Water Tower pickleball extends many benefits to Philadelphians and the broader community. It is exercise and sport, but more importantly, it supports relationships and a social connection that had been threatened during the pandemic.
The pickleball community at Water Tower includes a wide range of races, body types, sexual orientations, and personalities – all of whom come from different neighborhoods, professions, social classes, and political orientations. The game has shed its reputation as a sport for retirees and become quite varied in age; intergenerational connections are common and you might see 80-year-olds playing against teenagers.
Some of the regulars include a pastor who drives up from South Philly to play, a guy who plays to help manage a struggle with addiction, and a man who has lost 50 pounds since finding the sport. Many of the players are people I wouldn't otherwise cross paths with if not for pickleball. The activity embodies the mission of Philadelphia Parks and Rec to “connect people to each other, to enriching experiences…with programs and services that contribute to the wellness and prosperity of all.”
While I don’t want to overly romanticize the game, there is a certain humility that comes with playing pickleball at Water Tower. Although singles exists, it is almost always doubles play. These are pick-up games where you just show up and jump in – nothing has been prearranged.
You may win more than you lose, but no one is above being defeated; no player goes without losing some matches. If you get defeated, a few moments later you might be partnered with the person who just crushed you.
If superiority is achieved, it doesn’t necessarily last long and you learn to accept losses, as frustrating as this might be. After each game you thank your opponents and say, “good game.” It’s recreation at its best–physical, competitive, social play in which the “winner takes all” philosophy is largely absent.
Since this time last year, hours of play have been reduced dramatically. Courts used to be open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week. Today its six days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
This came after Parks and Rec and the Water Tower advisory committee received legal threats from a lawyer and a handful of immediate neighbors living near the courts. The lawyer spearheading this effort seemed intent on ending pickleball altogether.
Nothing about this approach indicated an interest in dialog, negotiation, or compromise. There appears to be no appreciation for the recreation and joy that the game brings to so many people. There are well over a hundred regular players and several hundred more who play at some point over the course of a few months.
I won’t speak for everyone, as we are not monolithic, nor are we a cohesive, highly organized group with elected leadership. However, almost all of us recognize that living close to the courts could be frustrating. We have, however, largely operated in good faith. We already accepted certain compromises, like the reductions in hours, and most of us are willing to make additional changes.
You might not be aware that we already gave $4,000 to the Water Tower advisory council to help with various improvements, and over the summer we organized a GoFundme campaign for noise mitigation. We raised a few thousand dollars towards noise reducing screens that would considerably reduce noise levels. Unfortunately we had to refund that money as a noise reduction method could not be agreed upon before the fundraising deadline.
If the aggrieved immediate neighbors succeed in ending Water Tower pickleball it would impact more than just the players, as we also contribute to the broader community. Many of us support their biannual clean-ups of the property and attend fundraisers. We keep an eye on the area and stay mindful of noise and parking shortages. Before and after playing we support local businesses, bringing people to the area.
Furthermore, shutting down pickleball would make the growing sport that much more unreachable for everyday Philadelpians. The places left to play would likely require a fee. It would be the loss of another public good thanks to a handful of private interests.
Some think the neighbors opposing Water Tower pickleball are too precious, noting that Philadelphia has many larger concerns and organizing against pickleball is an act of folly for entitled Chestnut Hillers. They say cities are noisy and no one likes the sound of motorcycles, honking, barking dogs, or sirens, but have learned to live with it.
However, it is clear from our actions that we are in fact largely sympathetic to the neighbors’ concerns and seek compromise. Even though the litigious neighbors do not seem to appreciate what pickleball offers, we continue to demonstrate humility, a commitment to the broader community, and a relational approach to a contested issue.
The restoration of open hours during the evening and Sunday hours at Water Tower would be an important way to maintain the community benefit that comes from pickleball.
Tyson Smith lives in Mt. Airy and plays pickleball with his sons and mother-in-law. Tyson321@gmail.com