In Brooklyn, bowling strikes out

The Brooklyn Paper
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No one is likely to call the Mark Lanes in Bay Ridge “paradise.” It’s a bit cramped, the lighting gives everyone sullen, Steve Buscemi eyes and the woman behind the counter looks over newcomers like El-Al security guards.

But when I heard that the large department store next door wants to tear down the alley to build a garage for its shoppers, I couldn’t help but pull out an old Joni Mitchell LP (yes, I own a Joni Mitchell album. I was young and idealistic and trying to be sensitive so girls would like me):

“Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?/They paved paradise to put up a parking lot.”

Convinced that there were thousands of bowling fans out there with the same cliche running through their heads, I headed to 88th Street to do a story about people so committed to saving Mark Lanes from demolition that they laid their very bodies in front of the bulldozers to protect their beloved alley.

This is not that story.

Fact is, when I got to Mark Lanes, I could find no evidence that anyone was even upset about Century 21’s plans for a four-story, metal-covered lot. A family bowling next to me hadn’t heard and didn’t really take their bowling seriously enough to care. And the aforementioned sourpuss who rang up my game played Sphinx.

“Don’t know anything about it,” she said.

(The good news? I bowled the best game of my life, knocking down at least nine pins on the first ball in every single frame for a total of 158. Tear this place down? They should be forced to register it as an official city landmark!)

I did a little more digging (and also returned to my normal 120 form) and discovered that there was no outrage because Bay Ridge officials actually want the Mark Lanes to be flattened. After all, Century 21 consumes parking spaces like Idi Amin once consumed his people.

“I like bowling, but the community would be very favorable to having a new parking lot,” said Steve Harrison, chairman of the Community Board 10 zoning and land-use committee. “They’re talking about 280 spaces. I say wow. That’s a real win for Bay Ridge.”

Would he be saying that if Century 21 wanted to pave over a baseball diamond? Of course not. But that just shows how the mighty — in this case, bowling — have fallen. You youngsters may not even know it, but for a brief, shining moment in the 1960s, bowling was more popular than Jesus.

At its peak in 1962, there were 11,476 bowling alleys nationwide with 163,323 lanes of fun. Today, there are only 5,811 alleys with 119,815 lanes.

Brooklyn has just 157 of those lanes — and even fewer if the Maple Lanes in Dyker Heights also closes, which has been widely anticipated.

Frankly, the fourth-largest city in America is simply a national bowling disgrace.

“That’s shockingly few lanes,” said Bob Johnson, the international editor of the highly respected magazine, Bowlers Journal International. “But the loss of lanes is a trend all over the country. Any place where real-estate values are an issue, bowling alleys are closing.”

“And those multi-level parking lots,” he added ominously, “they do bring in a lot of revenue.”

Bowling alleys, alas, do not. In several visits to Mark Lanes, I found it difficult to interview people. No, not because my notebook was so covered in tears about the imminent demise, but because there wasn’t anyone there to interview.

And it’s only going to get worse. “We’ve found that when a bowling alley closes, some league bowlers go somewhere else, but 50 percent of the customers just stop bowling,” Johnson said.

But isn’t bowling supposed to just be there, an ever-present element in our lives, like network anchormen or a good steak, something immune to the vagaries of fads, trends and fashion (well, certainly fashion, if Earl Anthony’s wardrobe is any barometer)?

But that was when bowling was the King of Sports. Now, there are so many ways for people to spend their recreation dollar. Whether they’re playing Grand Theft Auto, watching Emeril add salt and say “Bam!” on the Food Channel while TiVO-ing the “Trading Spaces” marathon, or downloading porn, people are just too busy to bowl.

Will bowling make a comeback? Do pigeons eat garbage?

“Bowling has proven to be very cyclical,” Johnson said. “At the Journal, we think bowling is about to enter an upswing, thanks to innovations like bowling lounges, which are basically bars with bowling.”

To paraphrase Homer Simpson, “Mmmm, bars with bowling.”

Gersh Kuntzman is the Editor of The Brooklyn Paper. E-mail Gersh at
Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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