As a teenager, Domingo Montes played tennis on the courts at Michigan Avenue Park. It was a popular recreational spot in the community, drawing families and dozens of kids at any one time from a fledgling tennis program out of Albany.
With time, the red and green courts succumbed to Mother Nature. Its surface faded, weeds poked through cracks, portions of the court buckled and kids stopped playing there.
“When the courts are here, the community does come,” said Montes, who moved up over the years from participant to program director at the Capital Region Youth Tennis Foundation’s 15-Love program.
The organization, which now serves 35,000 youth, is spearheading a $300,000 renovation project to make over the Schenectady courts in an effort to grow its presence in the city and give back to the neighborhood.
They will be the only courts of their kind from New York City to Canada, explains 15-Love Executive Director Amber Marino.
The 10 standard courts off of Schuyler Street have already been torn up to make room for eight 78-foot courts with blended lines and six 36-foot courts. The latter are for participants age 10 and under. The combination of these court types at one site is rare. Semi-permanent outdoor bathrooms will also go up at the fenced-in site.
“This is going to be a very unique site, a family-oriented site, because kids of all ages will be able to play on appropriate courts,” Marino said.
The 15-Love program has been around for more than two decades, using tennis to “teach the game of life” to inner-city youth in the Capital Region. The free, independent program is more focused on prevention than recreation, and stresses education, good health, positive values, multi-cultural relationships, community and family preservation.
Participants play at courts around Albany, Schenectady and Troy.
Children and organizers say there’s no question: the condition of the Michigan Avenue tennis courts was the “worst of the worst” in the Capital Region, with their gaping cracks, weeds and falling pinecones from overhanging trees.
“The trees drop these spiky cones and kids would want to play with them or end up stepping on them,” said 13-year-old Curtis Farmer.
He joined 15-Love when he was 6, after watching his cousin play tennis on the Michigan Avenue courts. Farmer could walk to the courts from his home in Schenectady, and the sport appealed to him because it involved running.
In the past seven years, Farmer has played on courts throughout the Capital Region and says none were as bad as these. When he found out they would be completely renovated he was happy to know more kids might join the program. He would probably end up walking to the courts more in his free time.
“For now, it’s just a hobby,” he said of the sport. “It’s active and I can meet a lot of people. And it changes the person you are. It makes you more mature to be around elderly and younger people who are involved. It can help you stay out of trouble.”
Schenectady has other courts at local high schools and several clubs, as well as in Central Park and Jerry Burrell Park.
Montes heard from parents often that they didn’t want their kids playing at the Michigan Avenue courts because they were so bad. In fact, they were in such bad shape that 15-Love organizers had to bring their own portable nets to practice there.
“The poles already here wouldn’t even hold regular tennis nets anymore,” he said.
Mish Semper wasn’t very good at tennis when he first started playing with 15-Love in first grade, but the 12-year-old isn’t too shabby now.
“They were pretty good,” he said of the courts when he first started playing. “There were no cracks.”
Semper also lives close by and can walk to the courts. He began to notice that the kids who tripped over cracks on the courts would leave to play in Central Park.
“More kids might come back now,” he said.
Both he and Farmer are part of 15-Love’s Excellence Program, which provides advanced lessons to children interested in competitive tennis at the high school and college level. A few months ago, they spoke before the City Council to ask for help in rebuilding the courts.
Not long after that the council agreed to help. City workers are doing the demolition and construction free of charge, said Marino, while 15-Love continues to raise money toward its $300,000 goal. They’re about two-thirds of the way there, with an expected completion date of mid-October.
Originally, she thought they might be able to put a new surface down. But the cracks were so deep that contractors decided the whole site had to be torn up, making the project much costlier.
“We’ll continue our programming here and probably even do more at the site,” said Marino. “The United States Tennis Association is going to do some additional programming there, as well. So it will actually bring business into the city, which is great.”
On the last day of practice before the demolition, Montes left a bag of tennis balls on the court for the neighborhood dog who loved to chew them. The dog used to sniff his way over while 15-Love practiced there and steal all the loose balls that landed in the weeds.
The dog is the only one who will be mad about the ongoing renovations, said Montes with a smile, since no one will be losing balls in the meantime.
“People right here across the street thanked us a million times for this. People in those houses back there thanked us a lot,” he said, pointing to a row of houses along Schuyler Street. “The property value is going to go up here once these courts are done, and they’re very happy that the city is finally paying attention to the neighborhood as opposed to Union College or downtown. The only person mad about it is the dog.”