On a recent weeknight around 2 a.m., two sounds filled an otherwise dormant dead-end street just north of downtown Flushing: the hum of a concrete-mixing factory and the soft squeaks of badminton shoes. Every couple of minutes, a man pulled up to the block’s only lit building in a yellow cab or car with ridesharing decals. Each driver found one of a few remaining parking spaces, retrieved an athletic bag from his trunk, and headed toward the New York Badminton Center.
Inside, doubles matches progressed on six courts as spectators lolled on sideline benches awaiting their turns. Games were first to 21 points; winners stayed. Nearly all the men were professional transport drivers (mostly for Uber). Some wore specialty badminton shorts and colorful jerseys. Others arrived straight from 10-hour shifts behind the wheel and played in their summer work attire of T-shirts and cargo shorts. Under the din of a marginally effective fan, conversations in Bengali mixed with the sound of rackets striking feathered shuttlecocks.
According to the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, Bangladesh is the birthplace of more local cab and for-hire vehicle drivers (14.5 percent) than any other country. And a growing number of Bangladeshi-American drivers, working the evening and early morning shift, are leaning on all-night badminton as the lone recreational activity that fits their irregular schedules.
“I’d say it’s a full house right now,” said Jakaria Islam, 39, as he scanned the warehouse-turned-badminton center. Islam, an Uber driver who lives in the Bronx with his wife and two kids, supervises what he calls the late shift at NYBC. He spoke with a face flushed from a string of matches and teeth red from chewing betel nuts, an addictive seed native to South Asia. It was 3:10 a.m., and he would not lock up for another two hours.
“There are a lot of stresses between our jobs and our families,” Islam said. “Here, the stress goes away.”
Islam grew up playing badminton in the Sylhet District of eastern Bangladesh. While behind cricket in popularity, badminton in Bangladesh is still common as both a lawn hobby and competitive pursuit.
In 1997, Islam and his parents moved to an apartment on the Lower East Side. Within a few years, he was working a six-day-a-week evening taxi shift. According to the TLC report, the second most popular driving shift begins in the late afternoon and ends around 1 a.m.
By that time, every one of the city’s 36 recreation centers has been closed for at least three hours. Several players said they used to rarely exercise, their daytime hours going towards sleep, spending time with their children, and running errands while businesses are still open. Some players spoke of pickup soccer matches between drivers in Queens around 3 a.m. They said they played near streetlamps to see the ball, but always ran the risk of receiving fines from police for “unauthorized presence” in a closed public park.
In 2013, the same year Uber became the first app-based ride service approved by the city, Islam and a few friends lobbied New York City’s two largest badminton centers—both in Queens—to extend their hours past midnight.
They had few other options. New York City real estate is not conducive to badminton: The game requires high roofs to accommodate parabolic shots. Plus, recreational badminton is not a lucrative enterprise, precluding the sport from the city’s many high-rent areas. No full-time centers operate in Manhattan (some schools host badminton clubs once or twice a week), and only three exclusive badminton centers exist in the entire city, all in Queens. This limited space makes booking courts during the day very difficult.
Uber driver Jakaria Islam supervises—and plays in—the 'late shift' at the New York Badminton Center in Flushing. (Brian Gordon / Gothamist)
After the first club declined Islam’s overnight request, his group approached NYBC.
NYBC operates in a manufacturing zone between a metal factory and a print shop. Opened in 2010, with a 22-foot ceiling, it accommodates walk-ins, private lessons, and youth camps. NYCB owners Veronica and Chibing Wu told Islam’s group they would keep the lights on if 15 players paid for court times. The owners’ other stipulation: The Bangladeshis would have to staff this unusual shift themselves.
Over six years, participation expanded from fewer than 10 players once a week to around 40 men playing (very early) mornings, Monday through Thursday. Opportunity costs dictate this schedule: These are times with the week’s fewest ride requests. Turnout fluctuates by the season, with larger crowds arriving in winter. Drivers pay $14 (regulars pay a discounted $12 rate) to hit from midnight to whenever Islam closes up.
“There are many people still waiting who can’t get time to play,” said Dewan Manir, 46, a medallion taxi driver for 26 years in Jackson Heights. Manir serves as the senior vice-president of Elakabasi, a community non-profit supporting new Bangladeshi immigrants. He said he once played soccer weekly before beginning to fear a serious injury could lead to missed work and missed car payments. “The young play soccer,” Manir said. “People my age don’t risk it.”
Numerous studies have linked working night shifts to health issues including depression, obesity, and even changes in pain perception. “This playing is so important,” said Manir, who began overnight badminton in 2014 on a friend’s recommendation. “No matter what we do, we have to exercise. All day we sit down.”
For thousands of other New Yorkers who work evenings and late nights, opportunities for recreational sports remain scarce. “This is not Idaho where everyone goes to sleep at night,” said Sohail Rana, an Uber driver and steward for the Independent Drivers Guild. “Driving, like so many industries, is where people work 24 hours. There should be more facilities. Parks could stay open. Indoor centers too."
(A Parks spokesperson replied to Gothamist queries about providing longer recreational hours: "We work to ensure that as many New Yorkers as possible have access to fitness and wellness opportunities, regardless of their schedules. Parks are generally open for individual recreation until 1:00 a.m. unless otherwise noted by signage. Recreation center hours vary, but some open as early as 6:00 a.m. and close as late as 10:00 p.m. on weekdays.")
Last year, Islam cut back his Uber hours after NYCB hired him to staff the late shift. Starting at midnight, he greets players from behind the front desk with “Salaam alaikum” before eagerly rotating into doubles matches. In addition to night shift workers, a few men with traditional 9-to-5 jobs have started playing overnight, drawn by the critical mass of their friends and fellow Bangladeshis.
Islam is paid by NYCB until 4 a.m., but as the one in charge of kicking people out, he seldom hurries. On this night, he played and bopped around the center and played again until everyone thinned out just after 5 a.m. “That’s the beauty of here,” Islam said. “Playing keeps us energized.” He shut off the lights, brought down the center’s electric-powered corrugated metal door, and drove off across the Triborough Bridge back to the Bronx.