The MetroSquash Academic & Squash Center, the fourth stand-alone purpose-built urban squash youth enrichment facility in the U.S., opened this spring in Chicago.
The certificate of occupancy was issued on April 1, 2015. It was exactly ten years to the day after MetroSquash had been incorporated. It was April Fools’ and it was no joke.
The program coalesced in the spring of 2005 amongst a group of Chicago squash players led by Conor O’Malley, now a US Squash staff member. In March that year David Kay interviewed for the job of executive director. A former Princeton player, Union Club of New York pro and University of Rochester coach, Kay moved out to Chicago in May and the first ball was in the air that fall.
The program (originally called METROsquash) was the first outside the East Coast and it closely hewed to the usual urban squash model of intensive academics, squash, community service and mentoring. It got early support from the then-CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan, who since has been the secretary of education during the entire Obama Administration.
MetroSquash was innovative in many areas. It started an active auxiliary board of younger friends of the program that held a variety of events like ice skating and bowling. Each spring it hosted a 5K run/walk and a golf outing, and each fall it held a MetroSquash Ball. It was the title sponsor of the Windy City Open, one of the oldest and largest pro events in the country and of a pro-am doubles tournament. Above all, it was the first urban program to actively be involved in running a major professional tournament, the spectacular 2010 MetroSquash U.S. Open held in Millennium Park in downtown Chicago.
Like almost all urban programs in their early years, MetroSquash cobbled together a routine with disparate parts. The students practiced at the University of Chicago, using three old hardball courts and a racquetball court in the Crown Field House. The academic work was at University Church. “The church is a block away from the university,” said David Kay, “and the whole process of leaving the courts, getting more clothes and a jacket on, especially in the winter, and then walking over to the church—all of that was about twenty minutes of lost time.” During the nine-day Chicago public schools teachers’ strike of 2012, the program gave squash and academic instruction all day to its 130 students.
A few years after it launched, MetroSquash began exploring the idea of a stand-alone facility. “We never lost the belief that the students deserved a permanent home for the program,” Kay said. “We had the key ingredients.” After one attempt didn’t materialize, the next did: partnering with the Preservation of Affordable Housing, a national non-profit led to finding a space 61st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue in Woodlawn, a South Side neighborhood near the University of Chicago. In 2013 the campaign to build the facility went public and MetroSquash raised $8 million from 400 donors. Almost all the support came from Chicago; 100% of the MetroSquash families gave.
The 21,000 square-foot facility has four classrooms, locker rooms and a parent lounge. There are eight squash courts—seven singles courts and one doubles court—making it one of the largest squash facilities in the Midwest and the only urban facility in the world with a doubles court. “We are very excited about the new facility,” Kay said. “I feel energized. Frankly, MetroSquash has been the most amazing thing that has ever happened in my life. The kids are fantastic. They have immediately taken ownership of the building. They see it as their clubhouse. We are going to double our summer program and in the fall we’ll add another fifth grade class. We are building on newer partnerships with Woodlawn schools. We just love having the doubles court—we can do fitness as a group. The older kids love playing doubles and a group of them have gone out every summer to Denver for the urban doubles weekend.”
“What has been done is Chicago is extraordinary,” said Tim Wyant, the executive director of the National Urban Squash & Education Association. “The facility will enable MetroSquash to change the lives of thousands of young people. And its presence will forever inspire urban squash programs across the country to think big and push themselves to do more and be better. When MetroSquash was founded in 2005, no one ever could have imagined that Chicago would one day be home to a multi-million dollar urban squash youth center. The accomplishment is a testament to David Kay, MetroSquash’s board, the Chicago squash community, and countless others.”
One of singles court’s front wall is glass and it overlooks the street. It is the perfect metaphor for how the game of squash, through an innovative program like MetroSquash, has expanded the horizons of hundreds of Chicago families.