In the past it could take 30 minutes to get a table on weekends, the queue snaking outside or crowding the entrance on winter nights. Both floors of Hall of Fame Billiards, a cavernous pool hall in Bay Ridge, would be packed.
“But look at this place now,” said veteran employee Alejandro Rodrigues, or Alex, on a recent Friday evening. “It’s kinda dead.”
Fewer than half the tables upstairs were occupied. The basement area, once thronging with players and the thud of pool balls, had been shut for years, with half its Brunswick tables already sold. Rising taxes and a decline in business had steadily caught up with a venue that opened in 1964 and became a Brooklyn institution, a place where children learned to play pool and returned with their own children. The building went on sale; agents managing the property said it would likely be redeveloped. This week, after months of limbo, a handwritten note appeared in the window: “Thank you for 56 years! It’s been fun!”
“Gives me chills to think about the history,” said Sue Monte, who first began working at Hall of Fame in the 1970s and returned a few years ago to run the counter, handing out racks of balls to customers and flicking the old mechanical switches that light up each table. It was a weekend night before the place closed. People stamped their feet as they came in from the cold. Behind her at the cash register were dozens of photos, many faded and with crinkled edges — generations of regulars, visiting pros, a dog named Snooker who used to hang around the place. The price list was on one of those magnetic boards with white type that have become ubiquitous in hipster coffee shops. Above the cash register was a more recent handwritten sign: NO VAPING.
The pool hall became known, over the decades, as something rare in this part of Brooklyn: a place for people from different backgrounds to meet. Bay Ridge was once home largely to working-class white families — Irish, Scandinavians, Italians, Greeks — but more recently attracted immigrants from Latin America and the Middle East. Fifth Avenue, just around the corner, has become predominantly Arabic, with 24-hour hookah lounges and baklava shops, while Sunset Park, to the north, has become New York’s biggest Chinatown. Inevitably this led to tension, most of all during the fraught years after 9/11, but Hall of Fame kept pace with the changing demographics of the neighborhood.
“It’s like the United Nations in here,” Alex Rodrigues said.
Hall of Fame began when Albert Balukas, a Lithuanian immigrant who was merely average at pool, purchased and renovated an old bowling alley on Ovington Avenue. His daughter, Jean, could play a mean game by the age of four, standing on milk crates to reach the table; at 13 she became the youngest person to win the US Open pool championship, a title she went on to defend for six straight years. Today she is regarded one of the greatest female players of all time. When her father died in 2013 she took over the business; now that it’s closed, she says she’ll focus on playing golf.
Unlike most pool halls in the city, Hall of Fame refused to serve alcohol — a decision that probably cut profits but made the venue welcoming to a wider range of people, including the growing Muslim community of Bay Ridge.
“They wanted this to be a place for families, a place you could bring your kids,” explained Rodrigues, who began working at Hall of Fame in 1994, right after getting clean from three decades of hard drinking. At one stage, he said, the Balukas family installed a jukebox in the front room, but got rid of it when kids started playing “foul-mouthed music.”
Rodrigues is Puerto Rican, with hunched shoulders and a greying ponytail. He lives next door to the pool hall in an apartment with his third wife. He served in Vietnam and once worked as a security guard at the World Trade Center. He seldom played pool, just hung out behind the counter or wiped down tables or broke up fights between the kids who spent afternoons there after school.
Sometimes he chatted in Spanish to one of the pool hall’s staunchest regulars, Carlos Motta, a tiny Guatemalan man of about 65 who could often be found practicing alone at Table 18, directly opposite the counter. Motta offered lessons to the kids; in return, Jean Balukas let him play for free. A retired boxer, Motta competed in the mini-flyweight division at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. He and Rodriguez told me proudly that he’d won bronze, but his official record, which I checked online, suggests he lost to the eventual medalist. Aside from shooting pool balls, he works as a boxing coach, but he’s been cutting back on classes lately because of a dental problem that hurts his gums. “To box you need to move,” he told me, dancing with his hips. “And the pain makes it difficult.”
Earlier that evening, he’d been practicing pool with two Yemeni cousins, Mohamed and Mahmoud, and their Egyptian friend Yusuf. I met the boys while they were leaving; Mahmoud, who is 11, with curly hair and a Brooklyn accent, had come to leave his cue behind the counter. I asked the boys how they felt about the hall closing down.
“C’mon guys, you can’t…”
They hadn’t heard the news yet and immediately began remonstrating with Rodrigues and Monte at the counter. They told me that they hung out there every weekend and most weekdays, playing mostly pool but also ping pong — there are four tables in one corner — or the newer arcade games at the entrance. “What’s this store gonna be now?” asked Mohamed, who is 13. “I can’t be living without this.”
Saturday was the one night the hall was reliably full, and almost all 26 tables were in operation when I returned that same weekend. There were groups of teenagers and a few Arabic couples on dates and a sextet of furiously competitive Chinese men playing table tennis. Four elderly Greeks were bent over the foosball table, spinning the handles and muttering insults at each other. One of them, Timoleon Kakouros, had been visiting since the 1970s. “I have a very warm feeling about this place,” he said.
As Bay Ridge had changed, he explained, people sometimes got to know each other individually, “but we don’t know each other as communities. And that’s something missing, not only in New York but in America as well.”
“This is a place,” he added sadly, “that was doing some of that.”