The New York City War on Tennis: Mayor Bloomberg Bans Smoking and Sodas, But Taxes Those Who Want to Stay Fit

While everyone’s talking about the War in Iraq and the War on Women, I want to shed light on another war: New York City’s War on Tennis Players.

While it may be more of a European past-time than an American one, tennis has always been my most beloved sport to play: The workout, the intensity, the one-on-one (or two-on-two) components … I could go on and on.

With pride, I estimate that 98% of my playing has been done on public courts. After failing to make it to any local New York City courts this summer, a friend and I decided to play a game for fun. This isn’t as easy as it sounds.

In New York, you cannot just play tennis on a whim. Nope, you need a permit. And there are two options: A $200 permit valid from April through November, or a one-hour, $15 permit.

Then, you have two more options: either purchase permits at the one or two locations in each borough that sells them — they’re not at the courts — or order one online and wait for a week while it’s mailed to you.

If you ever dreamed to experience a life like that of Kafka’s Josef K. in the 21st Century, then attempting to play tennis on New York’s public courts is surely your best option.

There aren’t any mobile apps for booking courts. Parks Department spokesman Philip Abramson wrote me over e-mail, “We have launched a pilot program for online tennis reservations. It is in its early phases of development and we hope to further enhance it with additional services in the future. We don’t have any developments to speak of at this time regarding a mobile app.”

So much for New York being a technology hub or having a “Chief Digital Officer” to make life easier. Blah!

Tennis fees are up 100% since 2010. The New York City Parks Department’s First Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh told me, “Prior to 2011, tennis fees had not seen an increase since 2003 … While we recognize that this increase may be unpopular to some, we believe it is fair and necessary. The increase in permit fees goes towards the city’s general fund which helps pay for services such as teachers, police, and sanitation, as well as our parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, ball-fields and tennis courts.” Because of the aforementioned 100% price increases, far fewer people are playing tennis, even though Mayor Bloomberg wants us all to be healthy and fit while not smoking anywhere and never drinking XXL sodas.

In 2010, when a full season tennis permit was sold for $100 for those aged 18-64, and $10 for anyone older than 64, the city sold 12,416 adult permits, 4,2032 senior permits, and 40,778 single play permits.

Yet in 2011, when the fees were massively increased to $200 for those aged 18-64, and $20 for anyone older than 64, only 7,411 adults and 5,202 senior sought permits.

This amounts first to a tax on working-age people, who are paying substantially higher prices for the same services. A 90% senior discount? That’s ludicrous. If diners or movie theaters and theme parks offered 90% off year-round, they’d be out of business. Plus, retirees presumably have a lot more time to play tennis (ahem, 9-5 Monday through Friday), so they also have way more access to facilities than working people and students.

Therefore, to presumably appeal to older voters, who vote at much higher rates than young people, Michael Bloomberg has created a de facto young person’s and working person’s tax on tennis. Per capita income in New York state only changed from $35,448 to $41,108 between 2003 and 2011, yet Bloomberg raised fees on tennis players by 100%. (Of course this is not a problem that a member of the 1% would deal with, as he and his chums just pay the $60-$120 hourly fees that are charged at private courts.)

This makes me wonder: Why doesn’t New York charge people each and every time they play basketball or handball on public courts? Volleyball? Football? Why is there only a tennis tax?

Abramson explained, “Parks has a long tradition of charging for tennis permits to raise revenue for the city, just as there is a fee for leagues to play on ball-fields and for members of the public to use our indoor recreation centers.”

Well, some traditions, like this one, should die. The Parks Department did not answer my repeated attempts for comment about why non-league play in other sports is free while tennis courts are always charged for. And what about low income people who want to play tennis?

“There is no discount based on income but we do have the free and low cost programs for children,” said Abramson, referring to $10 per year access permits.

So while other sports are egalitarian, tennis is still a sport of the elite in New York, but for no good reason. The middle class, working class, student class, and impoverished class of New York —  I’m talking about the 99% here — should rise up against this punishing tax that prevents people from playing one of the greatest games on earth.

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Sheldon Adelson is Buying the 2012 Election, But He Bought Young Jews a Long Time Ago

I’m throwing Sheldon Adelson to the wolves. Does that mean I’m a neurotic Jew, a self-hating Jew, a liberal Jew, a secular Jew, a kvetching Jew, an ethical Jew, a mentschy Jew, or some combination of the above?

Here’s the history of my relationship with Sheldon (and no, it’s not sexual):

In 2006, I traveled to Israel with Birthright Israel, an organization that sends Jewish youth, ages 18-26, on free 10-day trips to their “homeland.” To date, some 300,000 Jews from around the world have participated in this program. I loved practically every minute of this adventure, which was coordinated by a fairly secular tour provider, Oranim (unfortunately, no longer affiliated with Birthright).

I subsequently returned to Israel three times as a “leader” of Oranim Birthright Israel trips. Yes, Birthright Israel produced the desired effect of giving me strong and lasting connections with Israeli people, culture, history, and heritage. Of course, there was a little propaganda along the way, but there wasn’t enough to dissuade me from encouraging dozens of my friends to take trips of their own to check it out. After all, a free trip is a free trip.

I remember when, about five years ago, I learned that a Las Vegas casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson, was donating $20 million to Birthright Israel. I didn’t really think too much about who Adelson was at the time, and he most certainly wasn’t known as the the polarizing far-right wing zealot that he is today. Back then, I was thrilled that Adelson’s generosity would allow Birthright to continue, and perhaps even put the organization in a financial position to expand its offerings. In addition to supporting Birthright, Adelson gave $25 million in 2006 to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, another worthy cause. I had no reason to think that Sheldon Adelson had ulterior motives as a typical Jewish philanthropist.

I won’t tell you anything you don’t already know: Sheldon Adelson is trying to buy the 2012 Presidential election, and even though he isn’t breaking any laws, his rhetoric and style are distasteful. Ever since his lackey Newt Gingrich dropped out of the race, Mitt Romney has become his new favorite son. In Jerusalem last week, Adelson was Romney’s puppeteer; Romney is basing his Middle East foreign policy on a single individual who controls his purse strings. And that, for lack of a better term, is just plain wrong. A 79-year-old crazy who will, statistically, likely be dead within the decade, should not be putting millions of people’s lives at risk as the threat of a war with Iran remains on the table.

Adelson epitomizes the theory that as people age, they shift further to the right politically. And all of this grandstanding is making secular Jews and political moderates like me lean away from organized religion and further to the left politically. What it comes down to is simple: Sheldon Adelson is not like me. Mitt Romney is not like me. Paul Ryan is not like me. I don’t trust that any of these men have my short or long-term interests in mind.

I want this to be a dialogue for fellow Jews, especially those people who have participated in Birthright Israel trips. Should I now give any money that went toward my Israel trip back to Sheldon Adelson? Should I give it to an organization that opposes Adelson? Or should I sit back and do nothing? I’d love to hear your thoughts, because, at this moment, this is my quandary.

Dear Mayor Bloomberg: Let New Yorkers Drink Beer in Public Parks

I roll my eyes every time someone says that New York is the greatest place on earth.

The inhabitants of the greatest places on earth have freedom. The people of New York, well, we have civil liberties that are in line with the plutocracy in which we live.

I spent 2009 through early 2012 living primarily in a collection of places that should be noted for their strong offering of individuals freedoms. One needn’t flex the imagination too hard to extol the virtues of life in San Francisco, where it seems like 99% of all legislation is progressive. From marijuana decriminalization to recycling programs to living wages, San Francisco knows what’s good for citizens in a supposedly enlightened democracy.

(That said, 82 San Francisco bus drivers made more than $100,000 per year during the depths of the recession, which, is not only absurd from the standpoint of a recovering English major who will never rake in such sums, but also a huge waste of taxpayer dollars.)

And I spent a good chunk of the past three years in Denmark, Amsterdam, and the UK, where, with all of their cradle-to-grave protections, one can, at the very least, enjoy the simple pleasure of sipping a beer in a public park with friends, oftentimes paired with a BBQ.

Adults living in a free society should have the inalienable right of beverage choice in public parks. However, in New York, this is not the case. I learned this the hard way on Memorial Day weekend in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, because, while attending friends’ anniversary party, I had the misfortune of being seated beside two completely EMPTY beer bottles when a trio of cops decided to write summonses for having “alcohol in the park” to three of the six of us present. (My anger only heightened when I discovered that being cited in the park isn’t the worst of it, because under New York City’s draconian laws, you can’t even drink a beer on your own stoop.)

Not one to pay a $25 fine for an offense that I didn’t commit, I went to court and fought the ticket. It wasn’t the money that was the problem, it was that I was erroneously issued a summons by one of “New York’s Finest” (I’ll let him save face here by not revealing his name) for a crime that never happened. That said, my summons was issued at the end of the month, and as a shocking episode of “This American Life” revealed, NYPD officers have quotas to fill (even though they usually deny this), and I was more than likely just a victim of the system.

And while this alcohol policy is set by the city, it’s not the city government, nor the taxpayers, who are paying for the majority of upkeep, maintenance, and other critical day-to-day administration of city parks. Rather, it is such groups like the Central Park Conservancy and Prospect Park Alliance that provide the funds to make New York’s parks awesome. The latter pays 2/3 of the park’s $12 million annual budget. That said, these organizations don’t set policy, so their leaders should pressure the municipal government to change these Kafkaesque laws.

Going to court to fight my “alcohol in park” case opened my eyes to an even more shocking problem in the New York City parks: Thousands of ordinary people are charged with being in the park after dark, because New York City parks can close anywhere from dusk until 1 a.m.

During the 90 minutes that I waited to plead my case (which, for the record, I won in about 23 seconds, with the summons being dismissed and the case being sealed), I heard a few dozen other people defend themselves in front of the judge at the Red Hook Community Justice Center. By far, the most common accusation was for being in parks after dark.

Nobody wants junkies or other nefarious people residing in our parks during off hours, but until the NYPD solved every murder, rape, and robbery, all the way down to the misdemeanor level, enforcement of “park after dark” laws should be the NYPD’s lowest priority (even though a female college student has even been arrested and sent to jail for 36 hours for this crime).

It’s necessary to make a clear distinction between being in a park after dark and subway-jumping — petty crime crackdowns that Malcolm Gladwell famously discussed in his first pop sociology staple, The Tipping Point. In Gladwell’s book, he demonstrates that, according to “Broken Windows Theory,” it is important to reduce petty crimes because the same individuals who don’t pay for the subway are likely to be the same folks who are offenders in more serious cases.

However, the vast majority of the people I witnessed defending themselves seemed to have entered these parks after dark by accident. 

Taking a late night jog to let off some steam after a long day at work? Think again! Going for an after dinner stroll with friends to burn off some chocolate cheesecake? Not so fast. Don’t read English well? You’re SOL.

Tara Kiernan, in the Public Affairs department of New York City Parks, said her department did not keep statistics about the number of offenses committed in parks. She wrote in an e-mail, “Closing times vary by parks but generally parks are open 6:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. unless otherwise stated on parks signage – rule on our website http://www.nycgovparks.org/rules/section-1-03.”

However, the problem is that New York’s 1,700 parks have wildly stagnating closing times. Some close at dusk. Others close at 10 p.m. There seems to be little logic behind the variation in closing times. And from poking around parks to research this piece, I can say with certainty that many park entrances are not clearly marked, making entering a park after hours incredibly easy.

For the past month, the NYPD has adamantly refused, despite 10 phone calls and four e-mails, to provide me with city-wide data and statistics about the number of “alcohol in parks” and “in parks after dark” violations from recent years. One can infer from what I witnessed at a single court in Red Hook that many thousands of New Yorkers and visitors are affected by this nonsense each year.

So what can New Yorkers do to stop this nonsense?

Step 1: Petition your New York City Council members and the Bloomberg administration to change the silly no alcohol in parks rule so that it is no longer a petty offense to drink alcohol in parks. (If this fails, I imagine that an Occupy Prospect Park Protest, with thousands of New Yorkers linking arms, each clasping beers between them, will be necessary.)

Step 2: Require that the Parks Department post clear signage, in multiple languages, at every possible park entrance. And make it such that it is only an offense to be in a park after dark if you are engaging in some other activity other than merely walking, running, or sitting.

Step 3: Require that the NYPD reveal statistics that show just how many citations are issued for petty park related offenses, as this will reveal how many resources are dedicated to this. (The $25 summons that I had dismissed cost the city way more than that in terms of the amount of time and energy that a judge, clerks, police officer, legal aid lawyer, and administrator had to spend dealing with my case.)

Step 4: Once the laws are changed, enjoy your beer in the park at a time when it is open, and save me one if you can. (I prefer Hogaarden or Guinness.) Thanks.

Citi Bike Share Program In NYC Will Bring Total Carnage

I love cycling and I’ve had the good fortune to live in Denmark and the Netherlands, where bicycles are as ingrained in the culture as the NFL is in America. But I’ve proceeded with caution when cycling in NewYork City, because, despite progressive measures created by the Bloomberg administration to promote cycling and improve bicycle lanes, cycling here is still dangerous: New York roads are not built for cyclists and New York drivers don’t know how to coexist with cyclists.

StreetsBlog’s “Record of Carnage” speaks for itself:

“Over 7,000 vulnerable street users were injured in New York City traffic in the first six months of 2012, and 79 were killed, according to NYPD data reports…

Across the city from January through June, 67 pedestrians and 12 cyclists were fatally struck by motorists: 18 pedestrians and two cyclists in Manhattan; nine pedestrians and one cyclist in the Bronx; 22 pedestrians and five cyclists in Brooklyn; 15 pedestrians and three cyclists in Queens; and three pedestrians and one cyclist in Staten Island.”

Now, imagine introducing 10,000 new bicycles in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens to the mix that will be used daily, but not by people who have had proper training riding through our rough and tumble streets. Nope, these bicycles will be ridden by novices, likely even tourists, who very well may be clueless about the flow of New York City traffic. This is the reality that will launch any day now with the introduction of the Citi Bikes bicycle share program to New York. (You’re not in Kansas anymore!)

I shared bicycles for a month in Montreal, a city with far less traffic and far more ubiquitous bicycle lanes than New York. The idea is amazing, and it worked well. (For the record, this was in summer.)

But I’ve also lived in London, a city with a cycle sharing program, Barclay’s Bikes (nicknamed Boris Bikes for London’s Mayor Boris Johnson), have proved highly controversial. Many London cyclists have been killed, primarily by truck drivers, who fail to see them in the blind spots of their mirrors when making left turns. (Boris Johnson himself had a brush with death while cycling in London!) While New York doesn’t have fenced-in sidewalks (that have, sadly, sandwiched many cyclists between their metal and the aforementioned trucks), right turns in New York will be equally treacherous.

The London-based blog Cycling Intelligence, which keeps track of cycling fatalities in London, a city of roughly equal population size to New York, experiences approximately 17 cycling deaths per year. New York is on track to achieve 24 deaths this year, but I surmise that this death toll will rise significantly with the introduction of the Citi Bikes, as I anticipate that many of their riders, in addition to being unfamiliar with New York cycling, will also not use helmets.

(Logistically, New York will face significant problems when there is a shortage of bicycles in Midtown and the Financial District during the evening rush hour.)

The NYPD has a pathetically lax standard for investigating motor vehicle accidents, and as Streetsblog revealed, “Of 55 pedestrian and cyclist fatalities reported by Streetsblog and other outlets, 13 were hit-and-run crashes in which the driver was not immediately caught or identified. Of the remaining 42 crashes, five motorists were known to have been charged for causing a death. In four of those cases, the driver was also charged with driving while intoxicated. In the fifth case, the driver was accused of running over the victim intentionally. Historically, nearly half of motorists who kill a New York City pedestrian or cyclist do not receive so much as a citation for careless driving.”

Yet, despite all of these problems with drivers, New York City has taken the illogical step of ramping up traffic court for cyclists. This is not saying that cyclists are always correct, because they’re not killing anyone, that’s for sure.

Citi Bikes and New York City will mix like oil and water. Inexperienced cyclists + drivers who don’t deal well with cyclists + rush hour traffic + poor efforts by the NYPD to protect cyclists will result in needless deaths in New York City. And unfortunately, it will take at least one needless death to prove this point, but by that time, there will be no turning back.