By Sharyn Jackson
When Christian Alvarez moved to Brooklyn in 1999 at the age of 18, he missed the food, the language and the culture he left behind in Ecuador. His brother Carlos Alvarez, who had emigrated here seven years earlier, had the cure. He brought Christian to a stretch of broken sidewalk outside a school bus parking lot in the Kensington section of Brooklyn to watch a soccer game—a weekly custom for Ecuadorian immigrants in this area for almost 40 years. “Sometimes when you come, you feel empty, like a part of you is lost,” said Christian. But the game “made me forget about my feelings, relax and enjoy, like in my own country.”
A player at this weekly match for the last 10 years, Christian Alvarez tried one blistering Friday night to get the rubber ball between two orange cones. But before his team could score, the 12-minute bout came to an end, halted by the shrill whistle of the time-keeper, a stout man whom players sardonically refer to as “The Queen.” After the game, Alvarez cooled down across the street in front of a department store loading dock. Beads of sweat ran down the sides of his head and toward his mesh jersey as he looked back across 36th, beyond the frequent bus traffic, at the next match.
This gravelly bit of 36th Street near Church Avenue has done for Ecuadorian immigrants what it did for Alvarez since 1972, when a group of footballers from Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, organized a match of their favorite homeland pastime on a lot behind a warehouse. The players chose this non-residential block, on the brink of an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, because they believed they would be left alone on Friday nights, the Jewish Sabbath. Eventually the warehouse became a discount department store and the lot was paved on an uncomfortable pitch. But other than moving the action to the flatter sidewalk across the street, with spectators congregating on the slanted old playing field, the game remains unchanged. It has become a weekly tradition, a legacy for generations of players and a slice of Ecuador for homesick émigrés who continued moving to the area.
“Anybody who comes recently from Ecuador, we try to bring them here so they can feel warm and have part of their country here,” said Alvarez, an electronics repair technician. “For Ecuadorian people, soccer is the number-one thing,” he said. “We play in the street. If we have nothing, we use two rocks. We play anywhere.”
On 36th Street, the players use traffic cones for goals. Only five players can be on a team since the 12-by-24 field is too small to accommodate the usual six in Ecuadorian street soccer. Dirt and oil stains litter the uneven sidewalk. A metal traffic divider along one side of a fence is a hazard. And automobiles repeatedly run over the ball, so visitors from Ecuador bring special rubber balls meant for street games. “Air balls, when they’re run over by a car, explode,” said Alvarez. “These are made to last.”
The informal league consists of eight five-person teams that play one another for 12 minutes or two goals, whichever comes first. Players wear mismatched uniforms, making it hard for anyone but a teammate to know who’s actually playing against whom. (On Friday, Aug. 13, however, everyone will match for an annual tournament honoring Ecuadorian independence.) Footballers’ ages range from 15 to 60, and some of the younger players are sons and nephews of the older ones.
Eduardo Bague, 53, moved to New York from Guayaquil in 1971. Now retired from the game, the UPS worker comes every Friday from his home in Bath Beach, a Brooklyn neighborhood three miles away, to watch the next generation pick up what he calls “our sport.” “Now we play with our sons,” said Bague. “It’s a tradition.”
Like Bague, most spectators are former players who come back to watch religiously. That’s one reason why the game can’t be played anywhere but here, said Ernesto Pantaleon, the organizer and time-keeper (aka “The Queen”). “We already play in this neighborhood for this many years,” said Pantaleon, 60, a founder in 1972 of one of the first teams. “People come from different places—from New Jersey, Queens, the Bronx, the other side of Brooklyn. People know we’re here.”
Pantaleon attempted to move the game a few years ago, when nearby P.S. 230 opened their schoolyard to the public. But the players found the field too crowded. After two or three weeks, said the former travel agent and line cook, they moved back.
“We feel like it’s our place,” said Pantaleon. “We try to do it for these old immigrants coming from work Friday, maybe from factories. They come and find something to eat. And we try to keep it clean.” Indeed, one older spectator shuffles a broom around the makeshift field while the game proceeds, clearing it of the gravel that scratches players. And Frank Cuzco and his mother Maria Carchi, of Bay Ridge, have parked their van behind a goal every week for two years to sell homemade fare to hungry players. A former restaurant owner from Guayaquil, Carchi spends four hours preparing her signature dishes: two kinds of ceviche and encebollado de pescado, a tangy fish soup.
Leonardo Recalde, 74, never played in Brooklyn but did compete in Ecuador as a child. Recalde moved here in 1970, and still lives in an apartment directly behind the school bus lot. Before he retired, the game was a stop on his way home from a long work-week at a bottle cap factory one block away. Perched on a wooden chair he brings to the lot, he said watching the street game reminds him of his childhood. “When I was a kid, I saw people play in the streets the same way,” said Recalde. The only difference: “Some of them played without shoes.”
Recalde still remembers when the Culver El, an elevated train, ran just a block away. Service was discontinued in 1975, but before the structure was torn down in the ‘80s, remembers Recalde, Italians from the neighborhood would congregate at the rail site to play bocce ball, a kind of Italian bowling.
Thirty years later, the Culver El is the center of a rezoning project spearheaded by the city’s departments of Housing Preservation and Development and City Planning. The rezoning would allow for 68 units of affordable housing to be built along the former Culver El right-of-way. It would also permit other residential development on this mostly industrial rectangle of Brooklyn—including the spectator lot. The rezoning is awaiting a City Council vote, and if approved, luxury condos could replace the tailgaters’ spot.
Even if the viewing area is lost, Pantaleon said he doesn’t foresee relocation. Nothing has interrupted the game yet, not rain, not a neighborhood that’s changed over four decades, not the rookie cops who have tried to break up the gathering on account of some alcohol. “If they offer a park, we’ll see what happens,” said Pantaleon, “but it’s not my choice.”
“Nobody wants to go anywhere else to play,” said Christian Alvarez, the homesick footballer cured by the Friday game. “You have to keep the tradition going.”