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Lackawanna courts controversy by shutting down bocce club

Two older Italian men appeared before the Lackawanna City Council earlier this week wanting to know why their bocce court was closed without warning two months ago.

The court, built in Bethlehem Park in the late 1970s, attracts mostly first- and second-generation Italians who settled in the area off Madison Avenue across from the former Bethlehem Steel plant. With two indoor courts, the green cement-block building with a red tin roof, named after Joseph “Pappy” Amadori, became a neighborhood landmark and meeting place for block clubs and seniors who enjoy the sport, an Italian version of lawn bowling.

“This place is a social gathering,” Matteo Sassanelli told the Council members. “I can’t wait till I go out there with the guys.”

None of the men who play bocce at the center knows why Mayor Geoffrey Szymanski shut its doors, and that is why Sassanelli, 74, and Carmen Delmonaco, 89, sat in the front row of public seating in Council Chambers, just as they did over a month ago when a small army of players – most in their late 70s and early 80s – pleaded their case to city lawmakers.

“You couldn’t have asked for a better place to go spend an evening,” Delmonaco said. “Why they are taking it away from us, I don’t know.”

Szymanski had good reason to shut down the bocce club, said Anthony DeSantis, commissioner of public works. His father, Gino DeSantis, 89, who opened and closed the club, had had enough of the game and some of the people who played it.

“He took that job to heart,” said Anthony DeSantis. “There was too much arguing. When you’re older, you are set in your ways and expect things to be done in a certain way. The other members had differing opinions.”

Szymanski explained it differently.

“He felt threatened,” he said of the elder DeSantis. “So we decided to shut down the bocce club, calm it down a bit and re-examine it. I guess the members were trying to revise the point-scoring system.”

Some club members speculated that Szymanski may not know the whole story.

“Gino DeSantis got upset because we were too loud, and he called his son,” Fischione said. “We’re old. Some of us can’t hear, so we’re loud and we argue. We’ve been friends all these years. It’s not right to punish friends.”

Fischione, 76, lives in West Seneca and – like the club’s namesake – ran a construction business for more than 40 years. Standing in the bocce club parking lot, Fischione stooped to pick up broken glass.

“If the bocce court were open, this would not happen,” he said pointing to a hanging gutter. “We maintained the place,” said Fischione. “We’re very neat inside and out.”

Marcia Cullens, the city’s parks and recreation director, said the city maintained the facility.

“We heat it. We maintain it. We clean it. Like everything else the city operates, it’s for Lackawanna residents,” said Cullens. “But all the guys who were calling me wanting to have it reopened were non-residents, judging from their phone numbers.”

Almost 30 men regularly attend the club, forging friendships over pinochle, bocce and a willingness to debate almost anything. Many of the men come from Cheektowaga, West Seneca and Blasdell. One hearty player travels from Wheatfield.

“He (DeSantis) decided he didn’t want to do it anymore,” said Frank Nigro, who played pinochle at the bocce club on Thursday nights. “He turned the key in. It’s closed and no one told us anything. They’re looking for someone else to do the job.”

The club’s location – bounded by railroad tracks and Smokes Creek – make it like an urban oasis. For many in the isolated Bethlehem Park neighborhood it became a destination.

“There’s only one way in and out,” said Szymanski, who lived there as a child. “It was a great place to grow up. There used to be a baseball diamond where the bocce club is now.”

Szymanski would like to run the bocce club like the city runs other sports leagues, with interested players applying for membership and all members paying a user fee. Suggested fees range from $25 for residents to $50 to $100 for non-residents. Identification cards would be issued.

“It was free up until now,” the mayor said. “That was part of the problem. They treat it like a clubhouse, but most of them don’t live in the city so they don’t pay any money toward utilities.”

Many of the non-resident bocce players said they would agree to pay a fee.

“I live in West Seneca,” said Gaetano Collana, 74, a tailor. “If they want to charge non-residents a fee, I don’t see any problem. The place was built for the people of Lackawanna.”

“The mayor and a couple of people used to go there on Friday nights,” he added. “We don’t want to interfere. Like I said, the ladies go there, fine.”

First Ward Councilman Abdulsalam K. Noman spent an evening as a guest at the bocce club.

“I’ve been trying for a month to find out answers to why it was shut down,” Noman said. “I’m told they are still trying to find a replacement for the volunteer who was in charge. It’s a social club. I went to visit one time and felt really comfortable, and I don’t know anything about the game.”

Sassanelli, who spoke at two City Council meetings on behalf of the members, offered to be gatekeeper, opening and closing the club.

Meanwhile, Szymanski has received a membership roster, but he’s waiting on the addresses of members.

“We’re going to send them applications,” he said. “We plan to be opened by the end of this month.”