Today 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 senoritas 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?

    Thoughts?