Bowling Alone (the structural skeleton)

Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, is very good. Its self-branded (and quintessentially American) subtitle is “the collapse and revival of the American community.” The book discusses how Americans are abandoning traditional social networks at an alarming rate, choosing instead to live increasingly isolated lives. This reduced civic and social interaction, according to Putnam, is a threat to the very fabric of American culture. There are some interesting statistics in the book. For example (from his website), over the last 25 years the practice of having friends over has decreased by 35%, family dinners by 43%, and attendance at club meetings by 58%. [As an aside, the book was published in 2001 and based on research conducted during the ’90s. That’s just before Facebook and other social networking technologies exploded. I wonder how Putnam’s thesis holds up today? Does online interaction recoup any of the losses associated with declined human interaction?]

This post isn’t about Putnam’s book, though. It’s about bowling alleys. Putnam uses bowling clubs as the poster-child of his argument, citing alarming declines in bowling club membership during the second half of the 20th century. Post-WWII, bowling was so popular that in 1947 President Truman received a 1-lane alley in the basement of the West Wing as a birthday present. He wasn’t a bowling fan himself, but did let his staff organise a White House league. By 2000, people were more likely to bowl alone than as part of a club. This shift has been financially devastating to the industry. Historically, clubs were the dependable revenue generators. League bowling once generated over 70% of all alley business. Today that number is less than 30% and still declining fast. A bit of history:

The invention of the automatic pinsetter led to a rapid growth in the number of bowling alleys and lanes in the later 1950s and early 1960s. The heyday of bowling was the mid-1960s, when there were approximately 12,000 bowling centers in the United States. Business predominately was driven by leagues where bowlers signed up to come once or more every week for at least 30 weeks and to participate in tournaments.

That’s from White Hutchinson, a leisure industry consultancy. They conducted a study on the shifting demographics of bowlers. Headline conclusion: it’s no longer a blue-collar, adult male sport. It’s now a middle class kid sport. Worth the read, if you’re interested.

But this post isn’t about the shifting demographics of bowlers either! It’s about the growing number of abandoned bowling alleys across the country (and world). As the quote above notes, in the 1960s there were around 12,000 bowling centers in the US. In 2007 there were just 5,498. Retrofitting an out-of-business bowling alley into a new business isn’t easy. There are architectural considerations (huge space, low ceiling) and economic ones (most alleys are located in the suburbs, where cheaper/better commercial space is easy to find). As a result, many of these 6,000+ former bowling alleys just lie empty. This makes for great ruins.

I won’t harp on about this, because the guys at WebUrbanist already have. Go check out their article, which includes some amazing photographs from Germany, Japan, and of course, America. There are lots of videos on youtube of abandoned bowling alleys. I’ll recommend just one, of Toyo Boru Bowling Alley in Kanagawa, Japan. The video was made by the author of the WebUrbanist post. If you’ve only got a minute, watch this video from 3:00-3:40. Notice all the bowling pins and balls that litter the floor, and imagine being there yourself:

Recently bowling alleys have made creative attempts at attracting new customers. Live music, retro-theme nights, even hosting weddings. To me, this looks like the death throes of an industry past its prime. But Ron MacDonald, director of the Oklahoma City Bowling Hall of Fame and Museum, claims that:

Bowling is not on the decline. There are still people who bowl and bowl in leagues. The enthusiasm and desire to bowl is still there.

Unfortunately, MacDonald is both factually incorrect and hopelessly optimistic. Bowling is on the decline. The numbers prove it and the countless abandoned bowling alleys serve as chilling physical evidence. The same article that quotes MacDonald also quotes Mike Hickey, president of the Oklahoma Route 66 Association: “this is just economics. We’ve seen this happen before … Cities evolve and change happens.” He’s right. Bowling alleys, just like Route 66 motels, will probably never be what they once were. The most successful alleys today have reinvented themselves into full-service entertainment centers – personal servers, gourmet menus, individual TVs, even private lanes. This is a far cry from the 1950s league culture, and probably will never attract the same number of regular followers. Which all leads to one question: what to do with all these empty bowling halls?

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