As the weather starts to warm up (and then freeze, and then warm up again), it’s time to start thinking of ways to get yourself outside. New York City has many wonderful parks and greenways, but if you’ve ever tried to organize events or games in said parks, you know that it’s not as easy as making an evite and getting a “reserved” plaque from the city. I’ve founded and run a street hockey league and a concert non-profit, and I can tell you, making the most out of the parks is a painful process. If you’re willing to cut some corners, however, and shrink your scale, you can still get something out of the parks without putting yourself into the middle of an elaborate bureaucracy.
Sports: Like most new college graduates with menial jobs, I realized that without classes and only a part-time job at a record store, I had no idea how I was supposed to meet people. Sure, people came into the store, but our most frequent customer was a guy who worked the night shift for the MTA, had memorized our limited inventory, and stopped talking to me after he asked me what my favorite Sonic Youth record was and I gave the wrong answer (?).
Long story short, my older friends with real jobs were playing in their summer corporate softball leagues. I was jealous, but I’m neither corporate nor softball. The only sport I ever took to was the on-foot version of street hockey I played in the gym of my Jew summer camp that allowed me to stand still most of the time in defense and then whack the shit out of the shins of the mean girls when they tried to score. So, I decided to start a league for that. Black Top Street Hockey was born.
We started with a space, and rented an old store on the Lower East Side just as it was gentrifying (the previous business in our space was called “If You Give Us $10, We’ll Give You A Beautiful Purse”), so not only were the streets far less crowded and rowdy, but the nearby parks, especially lovely East River Park, were fairly empty. The tennis courts at Delancey were used a lot, but many of the other areas, including basketball courts with basket-less poles, were desolate, fenced-in, paved areas, ripe for the hockeying. As such, we (I always had co-heads and admins over the years) just had people sign up for a mailing list for information and show up on Sundays to play, and nobody in the Parks Department (or much of the world, really) seemed to care.
If I was interested in a more conventional sport or had any athletic talent, I could have joined an adult league at Chelsea Piers, or if I was in this situation now I could have turned to a number of sport social clubs. This was before hipster kickball. Even after hipster kickball came on the scene, BTSH was different, because there’s no way to look hip when you’re sweaty, making an effort, and probably bleeding somewhere. Our league attracted a more genuine sort of person, who cared about the game more than their image, which is probably I have many more friends I met via hockey than school, jobs, or anywhere else.
I handed over league management years ago, but it’s still around: BTSH is now a many times larger, totally legit entity that gets along with the Parks Department so well, they get prime space in Tompkins Square Park on Sundays for half of the year. While it’s harder to find a good spot in Manhattan with free park space these days, it’s still not hard to get regular games going with friends and strangers alike for any number of sports and wait to worry about permits until your popularity grows.
If you’re going to start out by running one game a week, then you can usually find an empty space after work on a weekday if you look for school playgrounds or parks in less-nice neighborhoods, which aren’t so scary if you’re in a large group when it’s light out. We played for several years on the rundown paved baseball area of the Vladek Houses and recruited a fair amount of local talent, like Hector/"Showtime," who joined when he was only a teen, and only a father of two-- his talent, age and number of offspring have both increased since then.
After you choose your space, you can find players by emailing friends and/or setting up a Facebook page with the basic info. You might start out small--we had seven players at our first friends-only scrimmage--but if you’re persistent, those numbers will grow and more dedicated parties will step forward to help with the work. Be prepared though to do a lot of the schlepping yourself, especially if your sport requires more equipment than a ball, and some logistical work, because even scrimmage leagues need some planning and fees. It’s easier to run scrimmages at first before developing into an organized league, but without eventually creating teams and a structure, people don’t have the kind of investment that keeps them interested.
Of course, you could always just join an established league, even BTSH (now in its 12th year!), but if you’re looking for something more low-key, or just looking to do things your own way, it can still be done. And given how many friendships, marriages, and just funny stories BTSH has created, I think it’s worth it.