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Protests erupt at San Francisco’s doomed pickleball courts: ‘They will not stop us from playing!’

Two men stand on a tennis court, holding signs with "Make Pickleball Less Excruciating" and "FUN!" written on them.
Sagar Manda, left, and Alex Zucauskas hold protest signs at Presidio Wall Playground's pickleball courts on Friday. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

Shouting “Dink, dink, this will stink!” with paddles raised, local pickleball players turned up Friday at San Francisco’s Presidio Wall park to play a few games and protest the Recreation and Park Department’s decision to close several of the city’s most popular pickleball courts. 

The players defiantly rolled away nets that the city had deemed unpermitted and replaced them with some of their own—and a few of Rec and Parks’ nets—and dived into serving pickleballs.

Even though the Recreation and Park Department ordered Presidio Wall pickleball players to take down their nets by the end of the week, it was clear that the “pickle protest” would not be deterred on Friday morning.

“This is pickle disobedience. They will not stop us from playing!” shouted USA Pickleball ambassador Mary Hickey to the several dozen pickleball players gathered around the courts. They had brought signs emblazoned with the sport’s holey ball and scrawled with slogans like “More pickleball, less fentanyl.” 

“The game continues!” she yelled.

The action came after a heated weeklong battle waged by local pickleball proponents to save six out of the 12 courts at the Presidio Wall Playground, which city officials announced earlier this week would be stripped of pickleball lines in the coming months and converted back into tennis courts. 

A woman stands by a pickleball net with a paddle, wearing a cap and sportswear, with players and courts in the background.
Mary Hickey, a USA Pickleball ambassador and leader in the local pickleball community, surveys the Presidio Wall Playground's pickleball courts on Friday. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

The announcement, which also demanded that Presidio Wall players remove crowdfunded rolling nets from a section of the courts, had blindsided the fast-growing community of pickleballers and become another flashpoint in a contentious noise dispute pitting nearby wealthy homeowners and local pickleball proponents.

In August, longtime Presidio Heights resident Holly Peterson grabbed headlines by alleging that the sale of her $36 million home was thwarted due to the constant pock, pock, pock of pickleballs near the property, which ironically enough, featured its own backyard pickleball court.

Aerial view of urban buildings with a tennis court, green spaces, and cars on the street, marked by "Google Earth" at the bottom right.
An aerial view of the Peterson house in Presidio Heights shows a 20-room mansion with a pickleball court in its backyard. | Source: Courtesy Google Earth

Hickey, a leader of the local pickleball community, said that despite attempts to propose solutions to the city and nearby homeowners—such as installing noise-reducing curtains and using quieter paddles at the courts—the proposals have fallen on deaf ears.

“I’m upset with Rec and Parks because normally in a democracy, you have a meeting, and you talk about things,” she said. “They just went ahead and said, 'Move the nets, and we’re painting over the lines.' That’s not democracy.”  

Other players shared their frustration that the needs of nearby homeowners were being prioritized over those of the far larger pickleball community and the public at large.

The dispute, which some pickleball protesters cast as a new kind of class war, “shows unfortunately how power and influence still kind of get you what you want in San Francisco,” said 32-year-old Marina resident Sagar Manda. “To me, it feels like the wealthy homeowners in Presidio Heights, maybe they consider this a nuisance. But what about the hundreds of people that are playing pickleball every day?”     

‘We All Have To Share the City’

Despite a large and loud showing of pickleball proponents at the department’s commission meeting on Thursday, Rec and Parks general manager Phil Ginsburg struck the tone of an admonishing schoolmaster—reminding local pickleballers they had to share space with other types of recreational players. 

A group of pickleball players poses for a group photo inside San Francisco City Hall.
Local pickleball players descended on City Hall on Thursday to voice their dismay with city plans to remove six out of twelve pickleball courts at Presidio Wall. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

“Every site is different, and this is our challenge. We all have to share the city,” said Ginbsurg, before citing additional reasons for the city’s shrinking of the site—among them numerous noise complaints from the surrounding neighborhood, threats of lawsuits and concern that the prevalent pop of pickleballs was taking a toll on some neighbors’ peace of mind. 

“It's one thing that we have to take seriously—the mental health of some of the neighbors,” Ginsburg said. 

One meeting attendee interrupted the parks manager’s plea for empathy, crying out “bullshit!” to widespread laughter.  

After the meeting, protesters cited an online petition signed by nearly 1,400 people as of Friday as evidence that the mental health of the surrounding community had actually been improved by the pickleball courts, which have grown increasingly popular alongside the sport over the past few years. 

“Three [or] five neighbors’ mental health?” said an incensed Laura Carmany, a 57-year-old mother of two and Presidio Heights resident. “It’s everybody’s mental health!” 

Carmany credits playing pickleball at Presidio Wall with helping her to survive lymphoma and cope with incapacitating rheumatoid arthritis over the last few years. 

“I reflect back, ‘What would I have done without Presidio Wall over the last three years?' I would not have recovered the way I have,” she said. “Presidio Wall is where I found this convalescence. The community plus play has brought me joy.”

‘What They Did Is They Destroyed It’

Lakeshore resident Will Tan, 58, similarly discovered the healing power of pickleball after suffering from a major cardiac event and turning to the sport after playing tennis for four decades. He was crestfallen packing up the nets, along with his wife, Gracie, on Friday. 

“It’s, like, Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco, right? Presidio Wall is to pickleball,” he said. “And now what they did is they destroyed it.” 

As for Bill Lafferty, a retired San Francisco paramedic and firefighter who’s been tending to the nets at Presidio Wall on a volunteer basis for years, losing the nets not only represented a blow to a vibrant community but also fed his disillusionment with city governance.  

“You have multiple hundreds of people using these courts that have no input,” he said. “There's not a city department that moves on anything in five days. Somebody is pushing [Rec and Parks] real hard.”

A man stands smiling by a pickleball net, holding a paddle, with others playing in the background on the court.
Bill Lafferty, a retired San Francisco paramedic and fireman who’s been tending to the nets at Presidio Wall on a volunteer basis for years, poses for a portrait at Presidio Wall Playground's pickleball courts on Friday. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

In response to Friday’s protest, Rec and Parks issued a statement saying: “Pickleball is a fast-growing sport and we appreciate the enthusiasm and passion that pickleballers have demonstrated. … Although this may not be the outcome the pickleball community desires, they can rest assured that our work isn’t done and more places to play are on the way.” 

According to the department, over the past five years, San Francisco has increased the number of public pickleball courts seven-fold, bringing the total from 12 in 2018 to more than 80 today. Earlier this week, the department also announced that it would add six new pickleball courts to the Marina’s Moscone Park Playground by dual-lining two tennis courts there.

People playing tennis on multiple courts with trees and overcast sky in the background.
Local pickleball players removed rolling nets from the Presidio Wall pickleball courts on Friday after the Recreation and Park Department deemed the nets unpermitted. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

Despite Rec and Parks’ resolution on the matter, Hickey is hopeful that the city, nearby homeowners and the local pickleball community can come to an accord so that the sport can continue to have a place at Presidio Wall. The nets, she thinks, are just a minor snag. 

Having found a loophole in the city’s edict from earlier this week to remove unpermitted nets from the court, she’s urging local pickleball players to BYON—bring your own net.   

“Pickleball prevailed today,” Hickey said. “They told us to take down our nets, but we’re still playing.” 

Christina Campodonico can be reached at christina@sfstandard.com