For years, the hustle and bustle at the bocce courts on the corner of 79th Street and Juniper Boulevard North have attracted dozens of seniors and enthusiasts of the timeless Italian sport.
Last week, the courts were closed and bocce ball players migrated to Maurice Park in Maspeth to play while an $850,000 project begins to overhaul the weathered and worn facility.
The one-year construction project will not only add covers and reconstruct the two existing bocce courts at the park, but it will also add a new court as well as new tables, benches, trees and a shade area.
“The new and improved bocce courts that we began construction on today will give our players state-of-the-art courts with relaxing shaded area to play and relieve overcrowding for this hugely popular sport,” said Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who allocated some of the funds for the project.
Longtime bocce player Steve Shakarchy said upwards of 80 players come to Juniper Valley Park on a daily basis from as far as Howard Beach and Five Towns on Long Island.
“This park, Juniper Park, is nicer than any park from Central Park to Long Island,” Shakarchy said. “You have a money court, you have a free court and they come here, they gamble, they curse at each other and they love the game. “
Shakarchy, an active bocce player since 2000, was hired by the city to teach the sport for the Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation.
“I fell in love with the game and I wanted kids to learn because there are so many un-athletic kids nowadays that don’t get involved in sports,” he said. “I thought it’d be a perfect way to keep kids away from drugs and cigarettes.”
Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski said the new courts might entice the Parks Department to bring the Annual Citywide Bocce Tournament finals to Juniper Valley Park once the renovations are complete.
“Now with a third court being completed, we become a viable location for the city to consider as the host site for the citywide tournament,” Lewandowski said.
She added that the city would continue to rely on the bocce players to maintain the courts once completed.
“The critical thing is that the care of the courts really depend on the players who adopt that location,” she said.
Although many players have relocated to Maurice Park during the construction phase, Lewandowski said she is confident that the culture and spirit of the sport will remain strong.
“We’re hoping that by relocating the group from Juniper that it might spark interest in that community for others to play,” Lewandowski said. “When the group that normally plays here come back from Maurice to Juniper, there will be a legacy left behind and people will still play in that park.”