Last week I went up to the once-legendary Uptown Racquet Club to say goodbye to one of the most important clubs in the history of U.S. squash. In September 1976 Harry Saint built the club, at 151 East 86th Street, for $2.8 million. It was sold for $85.5 million to make way for condos and retail shops and closed for good last Friday night.
The rise and fall of Uptown is emblematic of the promise and dilemmas of the game. The club was not the first commercial club in the country or even New York, but it was instantly famous upon opening in September 1976. Fourteen courts (two were softball—two of the earliest softball courts in the country). Like the MetroSquash facility in Chicago, Uptown had a court visible from the street, adding to the exposure of the game to all the passersby on 86th Street.
For a period, Uptown thrived. Woody Allen filmed part of Manhattan there (Woody loses the first five points of his match but wins the last one). Mick Jagger showed up to play on Sunday afternoons; Alan Alda and Brian DePalma were members. The club hosted numerous amateur and pro events: the Boodles, the Chivas Regal: it was where Sharif Khan knocked out one of Mark Talbott’s teeth. It was the also site of the country’s first draw for E players, and then one for EE players, a species alas no longer officially with us. I first played at Uptown in the mid-1980s when it hosted one of the big junior events each winter. I was blown away by how vibrant, how busy the club was.
Vitally, Uptown was a home for women. It was the site of the country’s first women’s pro tournament, the 1977 Bancroft (total purse: $6,500; winner: Heather McKay) and the home to many female teaching and touring pros. In the late seventies, only a dozen of the sixty-odd clubs in the area allowed women to play, so Uptown was at the vanguard of a new movement of parity in squash.
But Uptown in 2016 also was the sad reminder of the limits of commercial squash. Under pressure from aerobics, yoga, treadmills, spinning and stairmasters, club slowly hemorrhaged courts. It is the same issue that all squash-based clubs face: you can shove a dozen people or more into the same space that just two people use for a game of squash. Last Friday it had four softball courts, with long rows of fitness machines populating the space where more courts had once been.
My tour guide was Jimmy Gibbons. More than any teaching pro or player, the African-American maintenance man was the heart and soul of Uptown. He started working there in March 1990 and had watched the slow decline.
What was especially sad, as Gibbons took me up to the third floor, was seeing who was on the courts. All four were filled, despite it being mid-morning on a week-day and they were filled with a great diversity of people: old, young, of color, women, and at least one EE player.
That was the promise that Uptown epitomized. At one point in the early 1980s there were sixty-eight public squash courts in Manhattan. Now we are down to a dozen and most of those aren’t twenty-one-foot standard softball courts.
The next revolution might be outdoor courts. But Uptown is a cautionary tale. There is no magic formula for finding squash nirvana.