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Searching for Community in a Bingo Hall


Searching for community is what brings one group of senior citizens in Brooklyn to what might be the likeliest of places: a bingo hall. Call them old-fashioned, but that’s where they go, sometimes as often as six nights a week. They meet friends, gossip, eat, and play game after game. As Nina Agrawal reports, having a place to do that is still important in our technology-driven world. [0:20]

Marie Petrillo has been playing bingo for more than 40 years. But when asked how many times she’s won, she laughs.


Oh god, so few I can’t even count. This is not a game to win. Absolutely not. [0:12]

Petrillo plays bingo at the Fifth Avenue Bingo Hall in Park Slope almost every night. And she’s prepared. She has her own set of chips, a magnetic wand to scoop them up, and special markers, bottles of ink for the paper bingo sheets. She’s got her eye on the prize, but for her, winning isn’t really the point.


What do you like about it? What do you like about this game in particular? The quietness – not of the people- the quietness of the game, and that I’m out and doing something that I really really like and affordable. That’s the most important. [0:19]

On top of that, she says, she loves the people.


I’m like the mayor there, everybody comes over to me, they hug me, they kiss me…they all give me their phone numbers, call, they call me, see if I’m okay, whatever, if I need anything – so basically the place is really nice to me. [0:14]

Petrillo usually comes to bingo with her two sisters in law. They sit in folding chairs at one of the long linoleum tables that line the room, under tubes of fluorescent light. The hall smells like smoke, even though there’s no smoking allowed. A lottery-type machine in the front spits out numbers, and a woman with a platinum-blonde bouffant calls them out about every 18 seconds.

AMBI under

Bingo! Bingo has been called.

At a time when screens and apps dominate many of our social interactions, the existence of bingo halls is a reminder that people still crave physical spaces in which to socialize.


I mean, we’re social beings, so I guess in some ways it’s pretty self- evident, right? That as social beings we need places in which to be social. [0:12]

Manissa Maharawel is a PhD candidate in anthropology at CUNY. She says it’s important to have spaces just for socializing, for hanging out — which is different from spending money at a mall, or a restaurant. She says dedicated social space is critical for building communities.


You don’t create community unless you have a space in which to do that. [0:05]


People have sort of forgotten how to participate in public life. [0:03]

Ethan Kent is senior vice president at the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.


But when they do find these places, when they are given the opportunity, they are making these connections. [0:06]

Which, Kent says, are important for people to build social networks that contribute to health and longevity.


It’s spaces like these that develop the social capital that has very functional purposes in sustaining our networks for health, again, for education, for basic needs as well. [0:14]

Meaning that people can rely on their social networks — not just the ones online — for a ride to a doctor’s appointment if they’re sick, or extra help with a kid or grandkid.

Kent says today we spend much of our lives in our homes and offices, but historically we used to gather a lot more in “third spaces” — leisure spaces, like town squares, parks and pubs.


These places are really the hearts of communities- they’re what form attachment to place, attachment to each other. Our relationships are created and sustained through our relationship to these places. And it’s the culture of our neighborhood, the identity of our neighborhood that’s formed and preserved in these places. [0:20]

Back when Petrillo was growing up, that place was Borough Park, Brooklyn. That’s where she first started going to bingo, with her grandmother.


The mayor of the bingo- that’s her- that’s who I take after. And everybody knew her. And she was the candy lady- she would bring bags and bags of candy in her pocketbook so that during intermission we could sit there, instead of buying things, we would just actually, you know, she’d have everything I wanted in her little goody bag, I used to call it. [0:21]

Petrillo’s grandmother died when she was 96.


And as a matter of fact, she left me her bingo stuff. She left me her chips, all her bottles, her wands, and that means a lot to me. I didn’t need money or anything else. [0:12]

After games, Petrillo and her grandmother used to go to a friend’s apartment for coffee and cake. Now Petrillo and her sisters in law head to a diner in Dyker Heights to meet up with other family members.


Maharawel, the CUNY grad student, says technology has changed things for younger people, making it easy for them to socialize from behind a screen. But, she says, just because people are texting or posting on Instagram doesn’t mean they’ll skip the park on a nice day.


What we’re seeing with technology is that social media has a role but that actually physical space is still, if not more so important. People really crave material, sensory connections that you have in actual space that you cannot get from social media. [0:20]

She says that’s one reason coworking spaces and trends like crafting clubs are becoming so popular among young people. It’s that desire to connect in person.

Petrillo is on Facebook, and she says she’s enjoyed using it to get back in touch with old friends. But it’s just not the same as the bingo hall.


In the bingo hall you could actually, you’re one on one talking with each other. I don’t think I’ll miss a heartbeat in bingo. On Facebook I just might. [0:10]

So it’s no surprise what her plans are for tomorrow night…and probably the next day, and the day after that.


So are you going to bingo tomorrow night? Absolutely. Already made plans. You coming? [0:09]

She hopes she wins, but if she doesn’t, it’s no big deal.

Nina Agrawal, Columbia Radio News


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