by Brendan O’Connor
“I like to think of the organization as a friend factory,” said Amy Short. “Our mission is to eradicate loneliness.” The end of loneliness comes in the form of the Notwork Network Society, which runs a kickball league four nights a week on the Lower East Side, mostly attended by twenty- and thirty-somethings new to New York City.
The trouble with eradicating loneliness is that when it involves lights and generators and 40+ adults running around a school yard at night, the neighbors start to complain.
And so, last Thursday, Short showed up to answer to Community Board 3, in her role as president of the for-profit NYC Social, which runs sports all over the city, as well as sheltering the tax-exempt Notwork Network Society.
Karen Gehres, a Lower East Side resident of 30 years who lives across from the school playground that becomes a kickball haven at night, spoke to DNAinfo last week about what we can now call The Kickball Issue: “I have lived in the neighborhood when there were gangs running around, heroin, but this is one of the most annoying, obnoxious things,” she said.
After that bombshell… well. Gehres did not attend last week’s meeting, claiming to have received threatening emails and phone calls. (As well, her husband Phil Penman, who did attend, claims she was misquoted.)
Other neighbors were emboldened to show up, however. “Imagine trying to put your children to sleep with this screaming going on,” said neighbor Francis DiDonato. “The screaming seems to be culturally, for this event, one of the highlights. I mean, if they don’t scream, then it’s just a bunch of adults playing kickball.”
“They’re totally disregarding the quality of life in the neighborhood, and for what?” asked DiDonato. “So a bunch of yuppies can run around acting like 10-year-olds.” DiDonato wore black, all the way down to his flip-flops — a Real New Yorker in mourning for the Real New York.
Penman said that police officers from the nearby precinct have hurried over at the sound of screaming, worried that someone was being attacked. “Screaming seems to be a highlight of the event,” Penman said. “It makes it exciting.”
David Crane — Community Board 3’s Transportation & Public Safety Chair — understands why grown-ups (“grown-ups”) would involve themselves in an activity like this. “It is for the purpose of standing around and screaming for a couple hours — reliving your fifth-grade years,” he said. “It’s a nice activity, and it does provide a lot of networking opportunities, but it is designed to be rather disruptive.”
“There’s lots of schools in the East 70s,” DiDonato said. “Let’s put it there, and we’ll see how that goes.” This sentiment was also endorsed by a community board member wearing a pink TAX THE RICH pin. (NYC Social actually does run kickball games on what they call the Upper East Side on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but that location is between 67th and 68th Streets, located between the noisy hospital row of First Avenue and the subway demolition zone that is Second Avenue.)
“They are here because they go drinking,” said CB3 District Manager Susan Stetzer, meaning there are not enough places to drink on that stretch of the Upper East Side south of Yorkville and north of Sutton Place to make it an attractive venue. “You play kickball and you drink. And that’s what’s on their website. So I believe that the reason they’re in a very densely populated residential area is because we have trendy bars.” (CB3 has a long and difficult history with bars.)
Where the kickballers drink is Libation. Libation is one of the “sponsoring bars” of NYC Social. “Libation wasn’t even open when we started in this area in 2007!” Short said. (Libation opened in September of 2007, and good thing, too, because before that there was absolutely nowhere to drink on the Lower East Side.)
According to Short, the organization has gone to great lengths to accommodate every complaint they have received to the greatest possible extent. “We received a phone call from PS 142 two weeks ago, approximately, letting us know there had been a complaint about the direction of the lights. Those lights were moved the very next day,” she told the board. “We’re doing the best we can to fit in and be good neighbors.”
To that end, Short agreed to Crane’s request that all games be concluded by 9 p.m. promptly. “The definition of torture, by the way, is that you don’t know when it’s going to end,” Crane said.
Community members actually don’t have input into non-school uses of schools. “The root cause,” said Crane, “is that the Department of Education has a very bad process for issuing extended permits.” Outdoor extended use permits are issued by each individual school’s Building Council. Last September, when Rivington Court was demolished, after two months of Nike-sponsored basketball events, CB3 attempted to involve community members in the permit-granting process. That did not happen. At this hearing, CB3 unanimously passed a resolution requesting the Department of Education work with them to establish a review process for outdoor extended use permits for schools.
Perhaps that’ll solve everything. Just as CB3 is holding off Soho House from invading the Lower East Side — or, as residents were recently calling the center of Lower East Side nightlife, “the terror zone” — it can then keep young lonelies from playing kickball as well.
The schools, naturally, will approve these kinds of evening uses. Some schools charge rent for after-hours use; rates vary. Notwork Network Society will sometimes supplement their rent with donations — they donated a $6,000 “Smart Board” to the Lower East Side’s Marta Valle High School in 2011.
“That’s kind of an issue,” said Stetzer. “The schools have an incentive because they will get something extra for it that’s not on the invoice.”
Kickball enthusiast Short is mortified by such accusations, and by the casting of kickballers as bad citizens. “It really bums me out. I tell my crew to pick up every piece of garbage in the school yards, even if it’s not from us,” she said. “It’s the responsible thing to do.” As she spoke, a rat climbed out from the garbage bin behind her.
Brendan O’Connor is an Awl summer reporter. Photo from the NY Social Sports Instagram feed.