Killing community gathering places in Seattle and the Eastside, one bowling alley at a time

The fact that Kirkland’s Tech City Bowl will close in October is another in a series of nails-in-the-coffins for bowling alleys, a trend that has struck the Puget Sound area over the last 15 years.

Developers want the land they sit on. It’s much more important to erect the flat-faced condo blocks that are built out to the sidewalk, or put in another drugstore or bank. Developers have cash to buy out any struggling or even profitable bowling alleys. The chain businesses that will occupy have cash to pay the high leases while developers will realize their profits.

Seattleites have lived through this with the sad demise of Sunset Bowl in Ballard, and of its sister property Leilani Lanes in North Seattle, both of which sat empty after closing because of the recession. Robin Hood Lanes in Edmonds gave way to a Walgreen’s. Sunvilla in Bellevue is a car dealership. Now the Eastside — Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland, the cash-rich triumvirate — is faced with the same situation. We will not have a true bowling alley in any of the three cities. (For all intents and purposed, Lucky Strike in Lincoln Square is considered party lanes — it doesn’t have the full-spectrum of services.)

Realize that this is not just about the sport of bowling. The loss of lanes is the continued destruction of community gathering places. Bowling alleys were at their social height for decades. Couples bowled in night leagues, women bowled in day leagues, nursery services at the lanes allowed a break from children. Leagues continue despite the child care being gone, and bowling alleys offer much more than that. Saturday mornings are youth league, where children hone their skills with volunteer coaches. Many of these young people spend the rest of the weekend bowling in tournaments. Busloads of people with disabilities are able to bowl weekly. Children can enjoy the sport with the relatively new invention of the side bumpers.

As a member of the Microsoft bowling league at Tech City, a league open to anyone, I watch what happens at 9 pm, when the rates go down and the black lights turn on. Young people flood the place, coming to commune around a sport where it doesn’t matter your ability: You can still play. They come to be together in a public place, friends gathering. On the weekends, you can’t even get a practice lane, the place is so busy with children’s birthday parties.

Now we’ll be without another one. Other social sport spaces are leaving too, like roller and ice rinks. More housing is important, surely, but for every bowling alley that’s come down, there’s been a way to build what wanted to be built and still keep the lanes. But developers don’t want that solution — they want the ease of demolishing and starting over. If they care at all about community, they might design a patch of grass by a fountain and install a couple of benches.

We have parks. Our cities have been good to us with parks. We have tennis courts, basketball courts, swings and baseball fields. We also have weather than makes it hard to use those facilities year-round. A bowling alley is always there, bringing people together. From senior leagues to the stocking-footed toddler, people enjoy bowling and being together. Let’s hope the city of Kenmore doesn’t make the same mistake.

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