By Scott Enman (Sent along by Bob Weber with THANKS!)
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn has long been the mecca of all things hip, trendy and outside the box.
In Brooklyn, where the center of the universe is continuously being carved anew, the most popular nightlife venues today feature a pair of antiquated games thought only to be played by those of retirement age.
The borough’s trendiest young professionals, however, are flocking to play these old-fashioned pastimes known as bocce and shuffleboard.
Those who grew up in the Italian-influenced neighborhoods of South Brooklyn became accustomed to games of bocce and shuffleboard in the corners of parks.
Carroll Park in Carroll Gardens stands out in particular as one of the original sites to host these games.
On warm summer afternoons, onlookers find a cluster of wizened Italian men sipping espresso and puffing pungent cigars while perspiring and profaning to an alien-like game.
In another corner, one might find a similar scene with a different game that might prompt participants to shout out eccentric phrases like “biscuit,” “tang” or “the soup’s on in the kitchen. ”
These beloved, peculiar pursuits are bocce and shuffleboard, respectively.
Bocce, according to the NYC Parks website, was “developed in Italy during the 19th century” and is “played on a court of crushed stone. Bocce players attempt to throw balls closest to a target ball called a ‘pallino.’”
Due to South Brooklyn’s high concentration of Italian immigrants, bocce naturally became a popular activity in the borough.
Not to be confused with the literal geographic southern region of Brooklyn, South Brooklyn, according to Kenneth T. Jackson in “The Encyclopedia of New York City,” is an “obsolete and imprecise” term for the neighborhoods of Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Gowanus, Park Slope and Red Hook.
George Acevedo, 44, who grew up in Carroll Gardens, reminisced about the daily games of bocce in the park.
“Bocce used to bring in crowds of people,” Acevedo told the Brooklyn Eagle. “It was a very big to do. It was their piece of where they came from, from their villages, the one thing that tied them all together.
“I remember the arguments and fights they had. They were epic. We didn’t speak Italian, but we got the message,” he laughed. “I still see the spark in the older guys’ eyes when they explain the rules to the younger generation. They’re very happy that people are playing still. It’s important for them. They take pride in the game.”
According to Acevedo, bocce courts were sacred ground and are one of the only places that is still locked from the public so that they don’t become “dog parks and sandboxes.”
“The court is a piece of heaven for them. A place where they can congregate, sit in the sun, talk, play cards and maybe play a game of bocce or two before they filter home,” he added.
Rivaling bocce in popularity, shuffleboard is played one-on-one or with teams of two. The objective of the game is to thrust discs (biscuits) with a cue (tang) onto a scoring diagram at the other end of the court with the intent to score, prevent the opponent from scoring or both.
Shuffleboard has a long history of being played in Brooklyn and beyond.
According to shuffleboard.net, the game became popular in the late 1800s, when it was found in the “wealthy homes of New York City.”
“By 1897, table shuffleboard rated as much space in the metropolitan newspapers in the New York City area as prizefighting and baseball,” the website explains.
Both games remained popular in Brooklyn through much of the 20th century.
But as elderly Italian residents died, so too did the daily games of bocce and shuffleboard. The playing surfaces that once hosted lively, competitive scenes saw weeds sprout and cracks form. The courts became provisional dog parks as canines roamed and relieved themselves freely.
Joseph Balzano, 76, a member of the Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Cultural, Sport & Social Club in Carroll Gardens — one of only two Italian immigrant social clubs that still exists in Brooklyn — reminisced about his father playing the games.
“Our fathers would play,” Balzano told the Brooklyn Eagle. “I was never very good. Sometimes if they needed a fourth player, I’d play.”
The other Italian social club of Brooklyn — the Society of the Citizens of Pozzallo, also in Carroll Gardens — had a similar response.
“None of us played bocce or shuffleboard,” one man, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Eagle. “We had one member who played, but he died.”
A History of Bocce and Shuffleboard in Brooklyn
Both sports hold wide social and political implications in Brooklyn and beyond.
According to the Parks Department, the passive sort of recreation that bocce encouraged “fit with the philosophy of the Moses administration to create all-purpose areas that welcomed users of all ages and interests.
“Although it is enjoyed by all people, initially bocce was played predominantly by Italian communities, especially those in Philadelphia and New York. The first bocce courts in New York City parks were established by Mayor La Guardia in 1934.
“The popularity of bocce meant that by the 1950s, bocce courts had become common features alongside shuffleboard courts, handball courts and horseshoe pits in playgrounds across the city.”
The history of shuffleboard dates slightly further back than that of bocce.
The very first written record of shuffleboard in America was in Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible.”
“In 1692,” wrote Miller, “there was a good supply of ne’er-do-wells who dallied at the shuffleboard in Bridget Bishop’s Tavern.”
According to shuffleboard.net, “while our Founding Fathers were busy putting together the makings of this great country, there were big shuffleboard matches being conducted throughout the colonies.
“The game shed its crude beginnings when American cabinetmakers … turned out some of their finest inlaid cabinet work on shuffleboard game tables for the wealthy.”
The highly publicized shuffleboard tournaments were played by colorful characters such as “‘Big Ed’ Morris, Dave Wiley, Alex Scott, Ed Gardland and George Lavender” and “drew hordes of fans. The fans included important figures of the business, theatrical and political worlds,” explains shuffleboard.net.
Empty WPA pools in the off-season would double as shuffleboard courts.
The Sunset Pool in Sunset Park, the Red Hook Pool, the McCarren Pool in Greenpoint and the Betsy Head Pool in Brownsville all served as courts.
Over the years, the growing interest in bocce and shuffleboard prompted the NYC Parks Department to restore and refurbish abandoned courts left for rot.
Today, there are 39 parks in New York City — seven of which are in Brooklyn —where bocce can be played.
In addition to Carroll Park, parks with bocce courts include Bath Playground, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Calvert Vaux Park, Dyker Beach Park, Marine Park and McCarren Park.
Shuffleboard courts are harder to find.
In response to the sport’s newfound popularity, however, the newly renovated Pier 2 in Brooklyn Bridge Park had three shuffleboard courts installed.
A New Generation of Devotees Gets the Ball Rolling
Thought to be lost for good, these vintage games are experiencing an unprecedented revival by a group of votaries.
Once largely seen as boring activities played by the elderly, bocce and shuffleboard have developed into trendy, social sports at the hands of a younger generation of Brooklynites — or, as some might say, hipsters.
These younger socialites are drawn to the throwback appeal of the games, and entrepreneurs have begun to create specific nightlife venues catered around the games.
Jim Carden was among the first to revive Brooklyn’s bocce scene in the form of a bar.
“We had come across a place in Florida that had bocce,” Carden told the Eagle. “It was an outdoor place, and we just loved the social element of the game and thought it would translate really well to a bar in Brooklyn.”
In 2004, Carden opened Floyd, an Atlantic Avenue bar in Brooklyn Heights, with one bocce court. The game was so popular that Carden then opened Union Hall in Park Slope in 2006 with two courts.
“Everyone is used to a bar with a pool table,” said Carden, “so having something that is equally fun but just a new, unique experience is something that people are going to try.
“The idea of having a place where you can play a game with a couple of friends and even hold your drink in one hand and throw the ball with the other was very appealing to us,” Carden added.
“We also loved the idea of how unusual it was having a dirt court in a bar. Having that unusual design element in a space that coupled with the social aspects was a no-brainer.”
Carden said he believes younger Brooklynites are attracted to bocce because of the game’s simplicity.
“Bocce is really easy to play, and once you play it and get the rules, you never forget,” he said. “It’s a super simple game; the strategy is very straightforward, but it really is a game of skill, and it takes a certain dexterity.
“Some people actually find that the more they drink the better they get,” he joked.
Carden suggested Brooklynites’ open-mindedness as the main reason for bocce’s revival.
“There’s one thing about the Brooklyn demographic, and that is that people are very eccentric in what they do,” he explained. “When they see an opportunity, they take advantage of it. You can’t find bocce in a bar anywhere else.
“The great thing about people in Brooklyn is that they will try anything and they are very open-minded, so when something unusual comes along, they will not turn away from it; they’ll try it out.”
Carden added that “Brooklyn is fertile ground for something like this where you are able to do something unusual and not worry about people rejecting it because Brooklyn residents appreciate things that are different … they have very sophisticated tastes and they value a unique experience.”
While not many older-generation players come into the bar, those who do are quite nostalgic, according to Carden.
He contended that older players are likely fond of the fact that a newer generation is reviving the game. “Older players would probably kick the young folks’ asses,” Carden said. “Also, they would probably love that people are recognizing the game for what it is, which is a really great, fun sport that is a great way to meet people.”
Everything Old Is New Again
After a few drinks and a game of bocce at Union Hall, shuffle three blocks northwest on Union Street to the world’s first shuffleboard bar: Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club.
Located snugly in Gowanus, Royal Palms, like Union Hall and Floyd, has attempted — and succeeded — in bringing a forgotten game back into prominence.
Co-owners and internationally ranked shuffleboard players Ashley Albert, 42, and Jonathan Schnapp 43, sat down with the Eagle to discuss shuffleboard, the appeal the game has for younger players and why Brooklyn is a hub for it.
Like Carden’s idea, the duo’s love for shuffleboard and their dream of opening a nightlife venue around the sport originated in Florida.
Albert grew up in Miami, the epicenter of shuffleboard, and Schnapp learned to love the game by watching his grandparents play in Florida.
“We thought it would be such a great thing to bring to Brooklyn,” said Albert. “We were friends a bunch of years before we started doing this, and we both had jobs that had nothing to do with the bar industry or hospitality at all. We’re still not quite sure how that good idea tumbled into a 17,000-square-foot nightclub, but here we are.
“What was important for us was that we didn’t want to have a bar with a shuffleboard court. We wanted to have a shuffleboard club with a bar.”
Along the lines of the vintage appeal, Albert explained that Brooklynites and hipsters alike are drawn to the game because “there’s something that’s a little hokey and wholesome and old-fashioned, but not in the ironic way.”
Schnapp explained why Brooklyn was the right place for their unconventional vision.
“I think what was appealing to us about [Gowanus] is that it’s surrounded by a bunch of really great folks,” Schnapp told the Eagle.
“When we looked at this neighborhood, we saw that we were bordering Sunset Park, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boreum Hill, Fort Greene, Prospect Heights and Park Slope in this donut of really great neighborhoods with really great folks who are open to embracing something a little bit different and a little special.”
Similar to bocce, shuffleboard is easy to learn.
“While it’s very hard to be good at shuffleboard, it’s really hard to be bad at shuffleboard — so it’s something that anyone can play,” said Albert. “It’s really more a battle of the wits as much as it is a finesse game.”
Albert also praised the interpersonal relations that shuffleboard promotes.
“My favorite thing about the club is that when you scan the room on a busy night, hardly anyone is on their phone, and it’s a really interactive, very connective game,” said Albert. “You really get a chance to get to know the person you’re next to, and odds are, it’s not the person you came with, because your partner is across from you and your opponent is next to you.
“So you really have a chance to have an actual connected, meaningful, authentic conversation with somebody and still be in the middle of a fun, party atmosphere, which is really rare.”
Albert compared shuffleboard to bowling. “Even in bowling, we’ll be in the middle of a conversation, and then it’s like, ‘hold on, let me go bowl,’ and you take yourself out of the conversation. [But] in shuffleboard, you’re in it the whole time, and you’re working with a partner, so there’s a lot of room for collaboration and communication.”
Albert had a perspicacious theory on why shuffleboard experienced a lull in popularity between the older generation of players and the current one.
“Shuffleboard was never an old person’s game,” she explained to the Eagle. “It started as a young person’s game, but because it doesn’t require any real physicality, the people who were young got older and didn’t have to stop playing.
“So their children saw their parents play and didn’t want to play it because it wasn’t cool anymore, whereas when the parents were young, they were young and cool and played it. So it just became an old person’s sport accidentally, because no one has to age out of shuffleboard.
“Now, it’s been so long since it’s been an old person’s game, that people our age had grandparents that played, so another generation down has never even heard of shuffleboard. So people come in and ask us if we invented this game, and they’ve never even seen it before — so for a lot of people it’s brand new, and for the other people, there’s a nostalgia factor of playing it when they were a kid.”
When asked what the older shuffleboard players might think about this newfound popularity, Schnapp smiled.
“I think overall, they think it’s just so cool that people are embracing the game again,” said Schnapp. “They had a hard time even believing it at first because it’s so hard to get people to play shuffleboard down in Florida, and here we’ve had lines since we’ve opened the doors.”
“We’re playing with the people who are competitive-level shuffleboard players, and they are so passionately in love with the game that they’re psyched,” added Albert. “The idea that the sport is getting some legitimacy and living on is really exciting to them.”
So while the playing fields have moved, at least temporarily, from the corners of Brooklyn parks to the corners of Brooklyn bars — and while the faces of today’s participants may appear different from those of past players — the games themselves have not changed.
The rules have not been altered and the playing surfaces remain the same.
The popularity of bocce and shuffleboard may come and go with each passing generation, but the pastimes will likely continue to come full circle and persevere against the test of time.