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For a few summer months in the early 2000s, the Knickerbocker Field Club was a mythical place to me. Literally. I knew the address, I knew someone who played there, I had even read about its century-long history online. But I couldn’t find it.

This wasn’t unusual. The first person who alerted me to the club’s existence said, “Most people don’t even know it’s there.” He lived in my building in Brooklyn, and had seen me walking toward the nearest public park with a racquet bag in tow. He mentioned that he played at “The Knick,” a collection of five clay courts wedged between a subway line and a set of apartment buildings, on a street called Tennis Court, in Flatbush, a neighborhood not known for its wide-open spaces. “The courts are the best in Brooklyn.”

It all sounded a little too good to be true, and for a while I started to think it was. I rode my bike to the address on Tennis Court…and found a gravel parking lot. I rode there a week later, walked into the lot, wondered if I was trespassing, and walked back out. Finally, on a third trip later that summer, I dared to go all the way in and turn left. There they were, those five clay courts, all of them occupied on a sunny Saturday morning.


A screenshot from Google Maps of The Knick's unlikely entrance.

A screenshot from Google Maps of The Knick's unlikely entrance.

There wasn’t a lot of room behind the baselines; they’re usually isn’t in New York. The clubhouse was a concrete box—comfortable but not fancy. The Q train roared past every few minutes. I could hear a reggae song coming from an apartment window above. And whatever “field” the Field Club had once contained had long since been gobbled up by neighborhood housing.

But The Knick had everything you needed: It had courts; it had water you could drink on changeovers; and it had players who were looking to play. I had been inside the clubhouse for only a few minutes when a woman approached and asked, “You need a partner?”

I had to say no—I didn’t have a racquet with me, and I don’t think I was wearing tennis clothes, but that didn’t seem to matter much. You could wear what you wanted, within limits—no all-white dress code or collared shirts required here. There were players of all ages, races and genders on the courts. The atmosphere was chatty and down to earth, not stuffy. I joined a little while later, and spent the next 15 summers at The Knick. If you couldn’t have a second home in the Hamptons, having your tennis club a subway ride away was the next best thing.


A Neighborhood Landmark

The last sentiment is one that Marty Baron will happily second. A member since the 1970s and former club president, he says The Knick has served as a good substitute for “all the vacations I didn’t take.”

“I played a lot of tennis and made a lot of friends,” he says of his summers there.

Baron, a lawyer and businessman, and a lifelong Brooklynite, also took on the role of in-house club historian. After years of being asked about that history by fellow members, he put everything he knew into a book that was published earlier this year, The Tennis Courts at Tennis Court: A Memoir of Life, Love, and Tennis.

The Knick’s history is full of surprises, the first of which is that it has survived for 130 years in New York City, a metropolis famous for taking a wrecking ball to its past. (Ebbets Field, for example, where Baron used to go see the Brooklyn Dodgers, was a mile and a half from the club up Ocean Avenue.) Because of its longevity, The Knick reflects the vast changes that came to its borough and neighborhood over the course the 20th and 21st centuries.


Founded in 1889, The Knick was the recreational hub of Tennis Court, a fashionable Flatbush real-estate development lined with Victorian homes. In those days, there was plenty of room for a “field,” and more, in the heart of what would become the teeming Brooklyn of today. The Knick had eight clay courts, a nine-hole golf course, and a grand, Colonial-revival clubhouse with bowling alleys, an auditorium, billiard room, kitchen, fireplaces and a porch that wrapped around the structure and offered a view of the courts. The clubhouse was landmarked by the city in 1978.

The Knick thrived, drawing members from the surrounding neighborhoods, even as Brooklyn closed in. The subway soon cut through its property, eliminating three of the tennis courts and the golf course. After World War I, the area’s homes began to give way to apartment buildings, which eventually butted up against the courts. Even then, though, the club played host each summer to a warm-up event for the U.S. Nationals called the Brooklyn Championship, which was held until 1941 and last won by Pancho Segura.

The borough continued to be transformed after World War II. Originally Dutch-Protestant, by the 1970s Flatbush had become a destination for Caribbean immigrants. Yet The Knick was still stuck in the 19th century.

Changing Times

As Baron writes, in the early 1900s the club’s membership application included the question, “Are you a Hebrew, or of Hebrew descent, or related by marriage directly or indirectly to any of said race?” Women weren’t allowed to play, or even watch, on three of the courts. The first Catholic members weren’t admitted until 1965. There were no Jewish members until 1974. Into the 1960s, a married woman had to have her husband apply for membership on her behalf. Understandably, Baron, who is Jewish and, along with his wife, Judy, had taken up tennis as an adult, was reluctant to join.

But, as he writes, by the mid-’70s, “The Knick desperately needed members to survive.” A popular local pro, Phil Rubell, who was Jewish, was offered a teaching position, with the understanding that he would be allowed to bring six Jewish families and sign them up as members.

“Phil responded that he would only consider accepting the position if he could bring as many Jewish members as he wanted,” Baron writes. “The Knick reluctantly accepted his terms, so the Jewish racial barrier was broken.”


Some things are worth searching for, and keeping alive, and making better.

Thirty Jewish members came with Rubell, a big number for a place that had less than 100 members at the time. Still, interest in tennis in the neighborhood continued to wane through the 1980s, crime in Brooklyn continued to rise, and membership continued to dwindle. By the end of the decade, the New York Times was describing the grounds as a “back alley environment.”

Then, in what was a low point that proved to be a turning point, the inside of the 95-year-old clubhouse was burned in a fire, which began after 12 teenagers snuck in to watch the Super Bowl in January 1988. That morning, Baron and his wife snapped photos of the smoldering ruins.

“Years upon years of meaningful moments were reduced to ash and dust.”

With their meeting rooms destroyed, 30 of The Knick’s 47 members pulled up chairs on one of the courts and tried to decide what to do next. Baron thought the consensus would be to sell. Who would want to join a club without a clubhouse? Yet only two members voted to throw in the towel.

“Everyone else wanted to stay the course, push through, and attempt to make the club succeed against all odds,” he writes.



Baron himself would be a driving force in that effort. More than a decade after hesitating to join the club because of its anti-Semitic reputation, he became The Knick’s first Jewish president, a position he would hold for 14 years.

The first order of business was getting the Landmarks Commission to allow the charred clubhouse to be demolished—not an easy task with an organization whose job is to preserve whatever it can of the city’s past. Once it reluctantly agreed, Baron worked with his vice president, Sam Debs, an aeronautical engineer, to build a new, concrete clubhouse with metal doors for the bargain price of $200,000. It opened in 1993 and is there today. It doesn’t have a bowling alley or an auditorium, but it does have a TV and couches and views of the courts. And it isn’t made of wood.


The club’s members were determined to stay in their old neighborhood, but were the neighbors ready to keep them? There was tension around the courts in the early ’90s.

“We knew many people resented our presence,” Baron writes, “and only saw us as the wealthy white tennis players who drove into their community.”

When a bag of garbage flew out of a nearby window and nearly hit a female member, Baron knew he had to do something. But it was his wife, Judy, who came up with the game-changing plan. She suggested they start a summer junior program that would be free and limited to neighborhood kids. They put fliers up around local apartment buildings, and asked area churches to spread the word. Two club pros, Winston Ramsey and Todd Snyder, donated their services. The first day, 30 enthusiastic kids showed up. The program has only grown in the summers since.

“Starting that day,” Baron writes, “we witnessed the beginning of a new and wonderful relationship with the community.”

When the club started a free summer program for neighborhood kids, 30 showed up on the first day. The program has only grown in the summers since.

When the club started a free summer program for neighborhood kids, 30 showed up on the first day. The program has only grown in the summers since.


A century after its start, The Knick has gone from exclusionary to open-to-all, an evolution that Baron is especially proud to have been a part of. The club was also well-positioned to take advantage of Brooklyn’s 21st-century upscaling, which has brought a steady stream of new players over the last two decades. Today The Knick has 175 members, and 223 people on the waiting list—it’s open to all, but only has the space in its sliver of Brooklyn for so many.

How many regular players is too many for a club with five courts and no lights, and no room to expand? Compared to the old days, it’s a problem that current president Ray Habib doesn’t mind having.

“There’s been a steady improvement every year,” Habib says. Most recently, The Knick put in its first official Har-Tru court, with a full four inches of soil beneath.

“We never had that before,” Habib says of the courts, which are largely unchanged since they were laid down in the 1890s. “Everyone loves it.”


One evening during my years at The Knick, when I slid into the back corner of a court to hit a backhand, I could hear the sound of knives and forks clinking as a family sat down to dinner.

Another day, I looked up after a point ended and saw a mother holding her baby, while both watched from a fourth-floor window. One steaming sunny afternoon, we were serenaded by Marvin Gaye records. During the 2003 New York City blackout, I rode my bike to the club to hit with a friend—when the power goes out, what else can you do but go play tennis, right?

The mythical Field Club that I couldn’t find in the heart of Brooklyn turned out to be a uniquely urban tennis refuge. Some things are worth searching for, and keeping alive, and making better.

If you’re interested in purchasing Marty Baron’s The Tennis Courts at Tennis Court, click here. Proceeds will go to The Knickerbocker’s neighborhood children’s program.