A Brief History of Bocce in Brooklyn

men playing bocce ball in Park Slope in 1935

Bocce, a game in which players try to get throw their balls closest to a jack on the far side of a 16-foot court, traces its roots to ancient Rome. Italians developed the modern game in the 19th century, then spread it throughout the world as they emigrated. The first public bocce court in New York was built in 1934 in Thomas Jefferson Park in East Harlem, then an Italian neighborhood. “By the 1950s, bocce courts had become common features alongside shuffleboard courts, handball courts, and horseshoe pits in playgrounds across the city,” according to the parks department website. Today, they’re in 39, including six in Brooklyn with a total of 17 courts, mostly in Italian or once-Italian neighborhoods like Bath Beach, Carroll Gardens, Dyker Heights, Marine Park, Williamsburg and Gravesend. 

Actually, make that seven parks, unless my memory is playing tricks on me or the courts were removed in a recent renovation, because there’s also bocce in McKinley Park, though it’s not mentioned on the parks department website. Or eight, as Brooklyn Bridge Park’s latest addition, Pier 2, features two new courts, the first new public ones in Brooklyn in… a long time.

They’re not the first new courts in general, though: the game has proven a popular bar diversion, with well-played lanes available in Brooklyn Heights at Floyd, in Park Slope at Union Hall and Greenwood Park, and elsewhere. A generation ago, only Italian social clubs would have offered such an amenity, but the game’s popularity has extended beyond that immigrant group. The Times reported two years ago:

[The] president of the United States Bocce Federation said that New York has been one of its fastest growing areas in the last five years. “There was a time when the New York area was nonexistent,” said [the president], who handed out free bocce balls at Grand Central Terminal a decade ago to generate interest. “This year, the first two teams to sign up for the national tournament were from New York.”

Popularity has also extended beyond its once-typical player: men. The Marine Park Bocce Club was divided last year, the Times reported, when a candidate for its president planned “to bring in men and women from sources like the nearby senior center to add fresh blood… [while a men’s bloc] wants to make sure that men can have a refuge where they can play their ancient game of bowled balls, without feminine interference.”

“I want to be able to scratch myself, curse and play like the barbarian I am,” one retired Con Ed supervisor told the paper. “Give me one court and leave me alone.” 

Women took over courts in the Bronx as older men died or moved away. (The Italian-American population in NYC has declined almost by half in the last 30 years to 7.7 percent.) The players in Marine Park tend to average between 60- and 80-years-old. Bocce may be popular with a younger crowd—maybe, the Times theorized, for its “throwback appeal,” or maybe because of why it was ever popular: it’s a simple form of “passive” recreation—but they’ve preferred to play it over drinks. Maybe these new public courts will regenerate interest among a younger crowd in playing outside again. Sober.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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