The old men playing bocce on First Avenue

Bocce1940firstaveroyperryBocce is a rare sight in the city today.

But this bowling-like game used to be huge in neighborhoods populated by Italians, who brought it to New York during the great wave of Italian immigration in the late 19th century.

One popular bocce spot was near Peretz Square, the sliver of a park near First Avenue and East Houston Street.

Ephemeral reader Rich L. sent in this fascinating color photo below, snapped in 1970, of some older gentlemen engrossed in a game.


“These bocce courts were just outside the subway entrance (F train, ‘Second Ave’ station) on the northwest corner of Houston St and 1st Avenue,” wrote Rich. “I lived in Flushing, and my future wife lived on 2nd St, so it was quite the trip to see each other.”

“I’d see these same men playing bocce week after week on these two impeccably kept courts. They were absolutely fascinating to watch. Shame they’re now paved over.”

Bocce1940firstavefedartprojectThe First Avenue/East Houston bocce court existed in 1940, the date of two wonderful photos (at top and left) from the photo collection at the Museum of the City of New York.

However, Ronald Sanders, author of 1979’s The Lower East Side, says they were built when Houston Street was widened in the 1950s.

These photos show the court attracted bocce players at least until 1975, the date the fourth photo was taken.

“Although bocce itself is a continuing reminder of the Italian presence on First Avenue, the inclusion of a growing number of Hispanics among the players and watchers shows another of the instances of ethnic succession on the Lower East Side,” wrote Sanders.


Today, Peretz Square has no more bocce courts; it’s the gateway to Hell Square!

[Top photo: Roy Perry/MCNY; second photo: Rich L.; third: Federal Arts Project/MCNY; fourth: Edmund Gillon/MCNY]

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15 Responses to “The old men playing bocce on First Avenue”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    There’s a bocce scene in my novella “On The Prowl” but he has no idea what they’re doing and he walks on.

    I walked down First Avenue and paused on Houston Street, looking
    at the old men playing bocce, an Italian ball game I never understood.
    They rolled little balls of various shapes on a slim courtyard, knocking
    an opponent’s ball out of play. Was a very intense game but after the
    arguments which always ensued after a game I just shrugged and
    continued walking home.

  2. S.S. Says:

    Although the south side of Houston was widened in the 30s, indeed the north side, I always thought, was not widened until the 50s.

    However, look closely at the top photo and there appears to be an elevated train in the distant background. Could that be the Third Avenue El on the Bowery, which stopped in the early 50s?

    The other black and white photo also seems to show an El, perhaps the Second Avenue El (which ran along First Ave at Houston to 23rd Street, where it traversed to Second Ave)
    That line was removed in the 1940s.

    The style of the men appears more 40ish than the 50s.

    Yet the book – and many of us – thought that the north side of Houston was widened in the 50s.
    Any thoughts from anyone else?

  3. Barry Says:

    Steinway Street Park in Astoria still has a court.

  4. Beth Says:

    An Italian restaurant on East 62nd Street has a bocce court inside the building. Been there for decades.

  5. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Interesting…I wonder if there will ever be a bocce resurgence.

  6. La rassegna stampa on line delle Bocce in Toscana | Bocceintoscana Says:

    […] The old men playing bocce on First Avenue, Ephemeral New YorK, 13/02 […]

  7. xxxx Says:

    Its Astoria Park not Steinway

  8. Force Tube Avenue Says:

    I never played bocce, but often saw the invariably old men playing it in the 70’s, on Houston Street near my high school, and in my home neighborhood, Ozone Park. As a friend said, bocce had very little to do with rolling the balls, but the competition really got started with the arguing after the balls had been thrown. I recall some of the men brought carpenters’ folding rulers to debate the position of the balls.

    Thanks for stirring the memory.

  9. Barry Says:

    ‘Its Astoria Park not Steinway.”

    Actually there’s a court in each; the Steinway one is much older and more used.

  10. Victoria and Luibov Boitsovas. Says:

    Our America!

  11. Rich S. Says:

    I used to shoot photos of the Houston Street bocce action — one shot (from 1976 it ’77) is still hanging on my wall in California. The Crown Delicatessen is in the background. Thanks for your interesting post; it really stirred memories of wandering NY with my Pentax a long time ago.

  12. Old men, a folded chessboard, and Central Park | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] wasn’t the only game older men played in New York City parks. Bocce courts ruled parks in Italian-American neighborhoods, with groups of often Italian Americans crowding green […]

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