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October 21, 2005

Bowling Together, One Last Time

BowlingToday in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a sweetly-sad story about the closing of a bowling alley in north Seattle. There's nothing terribly profound, of course, about one business closing down, but columnist Susan Paynter does a terrific job of characterizing the place as a nexus of social capital, though she doesn't use the term herself. In light of the recent dialogue on this blog about the role of density, gentrification, and community, I thought I'd toss out this article as food for thought.

"You should start the day off with a little bit of laughter," Wayne Luders told me. He and wife Ruth come from home a few blocks away for the friendship, the circle of acquaintances they count on around the tabletop, and down-to-earth servers like Louise Adams who, Wayne admits, sometimes calls him worse names than "Sweetpea."

Like the other regulars -- the serious night-league bowlers with monogrammed bags, the daytime senior señoritas sporting matching shirts, and the every Tuesday and Thursday railroad retiree -- they dread March when they'll loose their moorings.

That the business closing is actually a bowling alley, gives a certain literal heft to the worry that social capital is declining, a worry that is most commonly connected to Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone. But more to the point, Leilani Lanes is not closing because business is slow (though it's worth noting that league bowling there has declined sharply, as it has almost everywhere). No, the alley is closing in part because real estate values have gotten so high that it's hard for the owners to justify the building's current use.

There's much more money in re-developing the alley into apartments, condos, retail outlets, or more profitable businesses. It strikes me that the closing of this alley--like the passing of many timeworn elements in any city--should not just be shrugged off as a matter of amoral invincible "market forces." It's truly regrettable when places of close community pass away, but it's a problem that's damnably hard to fix.

I'm certainly not a no-growther. I believe, for instance, that much of the new development in Seattle over the last two decades has made the city healthier and better in a thousand and one ways. A profusion of new commercial districts, walkable neighborhoods, and even farmer's markets is breathing a great deal of life into the city. But at the same time, there's something lamentable about the loss of "great good places" like the bowling alley--places where the community has gathered for years--places that forge the bonds that keep cities vibrant and may even keep people healthier too.

Waldal worries it will be the end of social contact for many. That they will sit, immobile and isolated by their separate TV screens.

Longtime bowling-league secretary Mary Pelan, a self-described senior citizen, started bowling at age 17. She guesses she'll walk for exercise -- probably alone -- when the place shuts its doors. "So many connections will be shredded and that's just a shame," she said.

But what to do? In the face of a growing population and the practical need for increasing density (not to mention the environmental and social needs), how do we preserve the "great good places" that make the places where we live worth living in?


Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink


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Tracked on Oct 22, 2005 3:15:13 PM


This heart-touching article does make one wonder if increasing urban density also parodoxically increases social isolation. This is something for developers to keep in mind, perhaps. Especially if they want to develop good *communities* and not just simply dense housing. By providing good entertainment facilities for new communities to blossom around, they will also be encouraging good social ties. I think this is healthy, and will make these houses feel more like *home*.

Posted by: Michelle Parker | Oct 21, 2005 3:48:37 PM

Terribly sorry! Meant to spell "paradoxically" this way.
... Maybe it's time to step away from the computer and go get some fresh air and sunshine. And renew those good social ties where I can talk and don't have to spell, for awhile!

Posted by: Michelle P | Oct 21, 2005 4:06:53 PM

My friends and I are mourning the passing of our favorite bowling alley this weekend with one last Rock 'n Bowl under the disco ball. It's a sad day in North Seattle, Leilani was a neighborhood treasure.

Posted by: Dave | Oct 21, 2005 4:22:46 PM

I'm an avid bowler, and league nights for me at Sunset lanes were great fun. It seems to me that architects are good at designing mixed use buildings with retail on the bottom floor, or offices; so why not a bowling alley?

Posted by: Ryan | Oct 22, 2005 4:29:36 PM

I second Ryan's point. Why not put a bowling alley into that new mixed-use development space? Pool halls and other social outlets also could warrant a space. I agree that one of the more pressing problems in this day is finding a place to hang out with friends other than sitting around at home or going to the bar. I sure could also use a better date location than a bar.

Posted by: Leah | Oct 22, 2005 8:31:25 PM

I'm sure it's possible to design mixed-use bowling alley constructions, but it sounds like the bowling alley is going away due to need for residential space. Is it possible to put a bowling alley, with pins crashing until the wee hours, directly underneath residential units?

I wonder how Tokyo does it.

Posted by: Eric | Oct 23, 2005 7:52:06 AM

Eric, just two words for you: excellent insulation.

I'm sure it's more than possible if the building is well constructed.

Posted by: Leah | Oct 23, 2005 9:45:42 AM

Near where I live in Seattle’s Central District is a small, independent café called Stellina. It opened about 5 years ago, a pioneer on a struggling little commercial strip at Union and 21st. For me and my family, it quickly became a source of social connection to the neighborhood. It’s the kind of place where the owner offers to hold your 1-year-old, giving you the chance to relax with coffee and shoot the breeze with the neighbors. Alas, they have just decided to move the café to a more economically viable location on Capitol Hill. So my little community will suffer the loss of a source of social capital caused by none other than: gentrification not happening fast enough!

Now, my intention here isn’t to be a smart ass (mostly), but rather to point out that we piss away our social capital in many realms for many reasons. It makes no sense to blame the developer or the landowner any more than the people driving apartment demand or environmentalists calling for density: The root cause is a culture that has forgotten how value that which cannot be quantified. Blame it on a few centuries of obsessing on capitalism and the mechanistic world view. So, we sit back and watch the free market machine bulldoze away our social capital time and time again. The problem is damnably hard to fix because to fix it will require nothing less than a remake of the American personality. Or am I being melodramatic?


PS: For the hardcore who have been following the Singapore/Seattle post, I would point out that the noted “Death of Environmentalism” essay makes a parallel argument that environmental problems are rooted deeply in our culture and so will require deep structural changes rather than band aids. (Though I’m not at all sure how this relates to the contention that the environmental movement is rotten with selfish elitists.)

Posted by: dan bertolet | Oct 23, 2005 11:26:53 PM

OK, I'll bite, jumping posts with Dan B.

When I contended on the "Is Seattle Like Singapore" string that (white, middle class, highly educated and, yes, urban) environmentalists lean heavily toward solutions that work best for them, I did not mean that enviromentalism is "rotten with selfish elitists."

I believe that everyone, regardless of their race, class, creed or lifestyle automatically and instinctively leans heavily toward whatever they believe to be in their best interest. That's just the way we think. The more powerful we are, the more we are able to extend our advantage--not because we are more greedy, but simply because we have more resources to meet our objectives.

From this perspective it would be very surprising if a movement that was led (as the enviro movement in this country now is) overwhelmingly by white, middle-class, highly educated and urban folks did NOT lean heavily toward the biases of that group. And, sure enough, such biases are clearly operating.

I originally made this point to frame what I regarded as a disturbing disregard for the social costs of gentrification born by people not represented in the enviro demographic.

But another glimpse into the problem can be seen when we examine the extent to which "environmental justice" groups function on a separate track from mainstream environmental groups. In Seattle, there is one organization (that I know of) that focuses on the impact of environmental policy on people of color and the poor--the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice (CCEJ). There are dozens of groups working on a more middle-class agenda, with a lot more money at their disposal. Further, there doesn't seem to be much partnering or coalition building between CCEJ or the communities it serves and the rest of the movement in Seattle.

Most environmentalists I know are aware of the rift, are deeply sympathetic to the cause of environmental justice, but--when it comes down to it--regard environmental justice a niche issue that rarely makes the front burner. Meanwhile, on issues like promoting density (which I think we all agree is necessary and useful from an environmental perspective), the mainstream groups will go ahead and support efforts that have the likely effect of promoting gentrification while ignoring other solutions that, while politically more difficult, provide much more satisfactory results for everyone in the long term.

And, Dan, I wholeheartedly agree with your broader comments about the necessity of a deep recasting of our cultural norms. But I worry when a radical critique of society, as accurate as it may be, leads to this insidious logic: "Well, the system is all messed up anyway, there's no justice to be had anywhere...so let's not worry too much about it for now." I hope that's not what you're saying.

Posted by: Sam | Oct 24, 2005 9:29:54 AM

This is an interesting topic, one which I'm sure many of us could go on forever about.

On the more narrow topic of bowling alleys and valuable real estate -- the real estate business generally operates on the "highest use" principle, meaning what generates the most money for a given amount of space in a given location. Bowling, unfortunately, (at least in North America) doesn't generate much revenue per square foot, so that's why these things happen.

Certainly there could be facilities constructed, redeveloped, or maintained that worked in conjunction with a larger development, but there would need to be some matching of residents/tenants, or at least the surrounding neighborhood, with the service being offered. And as real estate goes up, the higher income types flow in, and that changes the market -- and places like the Leilani pass on.

Here in the Twin Cities we actually have a good number of basement-level lanes, but even those get bulldozed occasionally (eg, the Falcon Bowl near the Fairgrounds recently got taken out with the rest of a strip mall and replaced with condos/senior housing etc). But I imagine a below ground option might be more workable in some developments because of its lower value with respect to alternative uses (residential, most retail, commercial, etc).

As for Tokyo, the ones I remember going to were usually in the standard 8-10 story building -- kind of like many pachinko parlors are. My guess is that other space in those buildings is usually commercial or food/bar/entertainment kind of things. This one is a 58 lane monster on two floors - 5th and 6th - near Shinjuku Station:

As for economics, that bowling alley charges $4-5.50 per game, compared to Leilani's standard rate of $2 and peak rate of $4.

I really wouldn't lament these things too much. Bowling seems to be more of an adjunct type of entertainment in the US now -- a feature within places like Julians and similar bar/arcade entertainment complexes.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen | Oct 29, 2005 3:12:21 AM


We are not moving the cafe because the neighborhood has not "gentrified"(a word we hate) quickly enough for us, we are moving because the people in this neighborhood do not support the local businesses. Our streets are empty because our "neighbors" are all out supporting businesses in other neighborhoods. This is a family business, we need to be able pay our bills like everyone else.

Posted by: teri | Nov 2, 2005 7:18:18 AM

Eric originally addressed this density and gentrification dilemma in his post, "Is Seattle the New Singapore?"

I think Sam asked some very good questions in that post:

[I]f the market trends in the direction of gentrification when there is significant investment in densifying downtown neighborhoods, then does it require an active and intrusive state to prevent it? .... [D]o markets organize societies fairly?

Today's "New York Times" briefly addresses this issue in its article, "Trading the Car for the Train." Although, it only tersely addresses it in the very last paragraph, since the article is mainly about developing mixed-use complexes near transit stations:

Though most developers these days are eager to build residential units, Jay Fisette, the chairman of the Arlington County Board [in Virginia], said it was important for OFFICIALS to PREVENT a single property type from dominating a neighborhood. "You have to RESIST RESPONDING ONLY TO THE MARKET," he said.

[Emphasis added.]


In other words, in a place like Arlington, VA (a suburb outside Washington, DC) which has been planning transit-oriented development for the PAST 40 YEARS, officials have concluded that markets do NOT organize societies fairly. Therefore, it is necessary for those officials -- elected by the people and for the people -- to keep things FAIR for the people. Because in most cases businesses don't (or won't).

Posted by: Michelle Parker | Nov 2, 2005 5:58:31 PM


Teri -- I think you make some very good points in your comment!

Upon re-reading my comment, it looked to me like one could conclude that I was responding to yours, since my comment follows yours...

However, I was simply responding to Sam's previous comment, as I originally stated.

All the best in your new location! It sounds like you'll be sorely missed in the Central District. Good family-run businesses are a true gem!



Posted by: Michelle Parker | Nov 2, 2005 6:20:11 PM