“I thought Petanque is the kind of game a New Yorker should bring to Detroit— something strange. Anyone can bring horseshoes!” says Jeffrey Widen, founder of Detroit’s Petanque club. “I had recently moved to Detroit from New York and I just wanted to bring something social to the city because it was kind of empty at the time.”
10 years ago, when Widen first started the Detroit Petanque Club, Campus Martius was still under construction. Downtown Detroit wasn’t exactly a community gathering space, so they played more toward the riverfront. Now, with our point of origin looking more vibrant, Petanque players set up court in Cadillac Square during lunchtime 12-1pm with pedestrians turned players, coming and going intermittently.
Widen started playing and people walking by grew curious. “Every one of our players was like that,” Widen says. “They were either walking by or taking a lunch break and now they’re addicted. There are people I don’t see for awhile, but then three years later they’ll maybe show up again.”
Petanque has been a vital part of the place-making movement sweeping through Detroit. More than just pretty facades, we’re paying attention to how people really use public places. This is one of the most inclusive games around. You can just walk into a game. You don’t have to buy equipment. You don’t have to pay anything.
“It allows people to socialize, which is getting far afield in these days.” Jeffrey contends. “People feel less comfortable face-to-face.”
This kind of inclusivity is woven into the fabric of the game itself. It’s democratic and open for anyone to play, and there are clubs across the country and world for people who love the game. You don’t even need a court, just any open space you can mark off. “They’re building community here. I love that,” Widen exclaims. “I love that people can step outside their offices and go do something with their fellow Detroiters.”
The sport was actually conceived after World War I for people who had mobility issues. A lot of men lost limbs in the war. Some were in wheelchairs. They wanted to play a sport like Bocce where you run up to a line, but they couldn’t run anymore. “So we stand in a circle,” Jeffrey explains. “They mutated this for a gentleman that couldn’t play his favorite sport anymore and changed it into something everyone can play.”
People with limited mobility have played in Detroit’s Petanque Club too. “We had a player in a wheelchair and he didn’t exercise” Widen says. “But after playing in the chair enough, he decided he would try standing, and it was just heartbreaking, you know? You’re like ‘please don’t fall!’”
But he stuck with it and after a few months, he developed enough strength that he played standing the majority of the time. “I’m not saying it’s a miracle or anything,” Widen clarifies. “The exercise was just good for him and then he didn’t even need his wheelchair anymore. He came and visited us on a three-wheel bike. So that was really encouraging.”
There’s a dynamic mix of people at the downtown Petanque games. They run the gamut across the spectrum of ethnicity, economic status, nationality and age, so a highlight of playing is getting to talk with people you otherwise might not. Sometimes it’s a good place to network. “You know, someone’s walking in the park, down on their luck, maybe they don’t have a job… We have guys playing here that are building managers, working in all kinds of different industries,” Widen says. “They might be able to provide an idea for a better job. That’s happened here.”
Widen ran into a Petanque match for the first time in the game’s home country. “I went with my mom to the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Central Park of Paris, and we saw all these weathered octogenarians playing,” he explains. “You know, you’re entranced by the buildings that have been there for two, three, four hundred years and then the people playing look like they’ve been there two, three, four hundred years. I was hooked.”
First, the cochonnet (ko – shun – nay), a little wooden ball, is thrown 6 to 10 meters from the starting circle. The players are divided into two teams (1 to 3 people on each team) and throw the boules (larger metal balls) as close as they can to the cochonnet. The closest ball wins the team a point. The first team to score 13 points wins… but it’s better to learn in person.
Sounds just like bocce ball, right? Don’t tell petanque fans. The differences are subtle but meaningful. Bocce is a little bit more genteel, they say. Petanque is lively. Long-time players jeer at each other, but all in the name of friendly competition. It’s a casual feel. You can eat and drink when you play, and Jeffrey is quick to point out that players in the south of France often have a glass of wine in one hand. “Bocce is a great sport,” Widen says diplomatically. “But I prefer playing Petanque. It has a French flare. It’s a little faster and I think that encourages people to play more.”
Some players bring their own equipment, but most use Widen’s. He comes out almost every weekday, bringing his equipment and teaching anyone willing to learn, but shrugs at the intensity of this commitment. “It’s just so easy,” he says. “It’s just something that people are so passionate about and it’s very stress relieving. We play until the game is over and go back to our jobs.” Simple as that.
“I just hope this becomes a mainstay for the area,” he concludes.
If you’re interested, stop by in the next couple weeks while the weather is still nice. They’ll be playing into November and meet at Cadillac Square from noon to 1pm on weekdays. For more information, you can visit their website at http://www.detroitpetanque.com/. Be sure to stay tuned for more in out unusual sports series. Next story, we’re shifting indoors.
Photo credit: Karpov the Wrecked Train