Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Vanishing Alleys

If you ask me, Kevin Hong is on a really cool journey.  He's spending much of his free time doing something that I (and apparently a lot of other bowler types out there) have only thought about doing.  If you follow the business of bowling, you know that bowling alleys are becoming an endangered species.  Take Seattle for instance.  There are only a couple of bowling alleys in the city limits today, a small fraction of what once existed in the 1960s and 1970s.
I suppose there are several reasons for that.  People have more choices regarding how to spend their free time.  The land that bowling centers reside on is valuable, so condos and box stores will generate more revenue per square foot.  And so on.  That's why Hong and his camera have visited large cities and rural areas alike:  to take in the experience of being in these aged cathedrals of kegeling and capture their images with his photography - while they're still around.  I talked with Kevin recently about his Vanishing Alleys project and the resulting book of his photography.
Kevin Hong
How long has bowling been a part of your life and how did you get started doing it?

I started when I was about 6. My parents bowled in leagues together and that's how they met. I tagged along and eventually started bowling myself and I got bitten by the bug. I have bowled ever since, except for when I took about 7 months off after having knee surgery in high school. 

What inspired you to want to start the Vanishing Alleys project?

I've always liked visiting small bowling alleys. In college in Columbia, Missouri, I had a group of scratch bowler friends and we would go to an 8-lane house on Saturday nights. It was in Fayette, Missouri and it's no longer there. Above ground ball returns, hand scoring, dollar hot dogs. We would bowl with our plastic balls and try not to kick the balls on the above-ground racks as they came rolling back. We also went to Saratoga Lanes in St. Louis and Arcade Lanes in Universal City, Missouri (which burned down tragically a couple of years ago). It was great history. I wish I had started the project back then, because I would love to have some pictures of the insides of those places to remember them by. I also used to go to Mt. Si Bowl in Snoqualmie, Washington when it was all wood lanes and had the Brunswick Gold Crown motif. That place has been modernized and looks much different now.

In early 2012 I was bowling in an 8 lane house in Connell, Washington. It very much reminded me of the places in Missouri and of Mt. Si Bowl. And I suddenly had this idea. I wanted to photograph these centers while they were still around. There are even fewer 8-lane houses now, so I figured I'd better get going. 

Has the project evolved in scope since you originally started it, and if so how?

I never set out with the intention to do anything specific with the project. I just like taking photographs (I used to be a newspaper photojournalist) and I liked visiting old bowling alleys, so it seemed a natural fit to do the two things together. On one trip to bowl a tournament in the Tri-Cities, I hit three small bowling alleys in one day. I made an appointment at one and just dropped into two others with no advance notice. They were very welcoming, but they wanted to know what I was doing with the pictures. And I had no idea what to say. It was then, after I had visited about 6 or 7 places, that I had the idea to put the pictures online (www.vintagebowling.net) and also start a Facebook page (facebook.com/BowlingAlleys).  I had no idea if anyone would look at the pictures or even care what I was doing. But soon I had 200, then 300, then 400 then 500+ followers from all over the world. Then someone said I should do an art book. Then a couple of guys from Texas said I should go to San Antonio and check out the ninepin clubs because it's the only place left in the U.S. where you can bowl ninepins. So during Spring Break this year I flew to San Antonio and spent a week there. 

Now I am making plans to go to the East Coast this summer and check out candlepins and duckpins. I've always wanted to try those. So at every step of the way, I run into people who have a passion for vintage bowling centers and disappearing variations of the game, and we talk a lot, so I'm always getting new ideas to add to the "to do" list. 

People are always telling me, "I've ALWAYS thought about doing something like what you're doing! I've always wanted to go check out the alley in..." so that gives me some new leads.

But I never originally set out to do any of it. 

Kevin Hong Getting Into His Work at Highland Social Club in San Antonio

Can you pick out one or two favorite bowling centers you’ve photographed?

My favorite ones are the ones in unlikely places. One of the first places I went to was Ebey Bowl, which is in an old squash barn on Whidbey Island, WA. It's in the middle of farmland and if you weren't looking for it, you'd almost miss it. Farm, farm, field, field, and then suddenly there is a 6-lane bowling alley. 

Layton Shirley, who has been around NW bowling for a long time, told me there were two lanes in a church on Seattle's Capitol Hill. Well, I grew up in Seattle and I attended Seattle University across the street, and I thought, "There is no way there are bowling lanes in that church. I would have known if there were." I'd even been inside that church before. But I called, and made an appointment, and sure enough - there are two lanes upstairs. Semi-automatic pinsetting, lanes in immaculate condition. Then Layton told me there are 4 lanes in a state-run school for the developmentally disabled. Then I get an e-mail saying there are two lanes with manual pinsetting in a church in Vancouver, Canada. I go to these places and I can't believe it. These are hidden gems and I bet practically no one knows they are there. It was like being in a candy store.

Other than Washington State, what parts of the country has the project taken you to so far?
I have been to several places in northern Oregon. I have been to two places in Canada; aside from the church mentioned above, I went to Youbou Lanes in the Cowichan Lake region of Vancouver Island. Four lanes of manual pinsetting. Between driving from Seattle, the ferry, and more driving, it was probably about six hours each way. But well worth it! I also have been to San Antonio to photograph ninepin clubs, a four lane center in Oklahoma, and I went to one center in Boulder City, Nevada, during a trip to Las Vegas last year.

Has there been anything that has surprised you as you’ve roamed about from community to community researching for this project?

The communities are different, the centers and proprietors are all different, but all of the people I've met have been so warm and inviting. The proprietors love talking about the history of their buildings. The bowlers LOVE their 6 or 8 or 10-lane wood houses and really care about them. They are the small town hubs, and neighborhood gathering spots, so the customers want to see these businesses survive as much as I do. That's the thing I love about bowling - it unites people from all different walks of life. It's truly a universal sport.

Kevin Hong Setting Up at Ken-Cliff Lanes in Oklahoma

Are there any parts of the country (or world) that are “must sees” when it comes to visiting classic alleys that have not vanished?
I would like to go to the East Coast because they have some forms of bowling rarely found anywhere else, such as duckpins and candlepins. I would love to see the Holler House in Milwaukee, which is kind of the holy grail of old bowling alleys. Also, I'm told there are a TON of 6 and 8 lane centers in Montana. They're not all on the main highways, however, so it would probably take a couple of trips crisscrossing the state by car. 

Do you have any new books planned for the future and will they follow the same format as the Vanishing Alleys book of photographs?
The book was a big undertaking. I self-published it, which was more expensive but it got it out there faster than trying to find a traditional book publisher to take it on. I don't think that would have been likely (that a traditional publisher would pick this up); this project has a very specialized audience. I don't think an art book about vintage bowling alleys would have sold well at Barnes & Noble, for instance. Since I had to front the cost of publishing, I didn't make anything off the book. I would love to collaborate on a project about the history of bowling. Ninepin bowling, for instance, was very eye-opening. It can only be found in about 3 counties near San Antonio, so I bet 99.8 percent of all Americans have never seen it in person or even heard about it.

I'm a photographer, not a historian. So the research and interviews and wading through papers and records would have to come from another, more skilled source. But I would love to contribute my photos to a larger effort someday. I don't plan to publish another book, but there has been interest from some in buying fine art prints of some of the photographs. I would be interested in selling those or even doing a small art show someday.

Thanks for the chat, Kevin.  Finally, what do you like to do when you’re not bowling tournaments or taking pictures?

I work a lot with young people. I teach elementary school, coach youth bowlers and used to be a summer camp director and counselor. But I do spent a lot of my free time involved in bowling somehow... whether it's competing or working on this project. 
To order a copy of Vanishing Alleys (30 left as of this writing!) go to the website www.vintagebowling.net. There is a credit card link as well as a printable, mail-in form to pay by check or money order. The books are also available at from the pro shops at West Seattle Bowl, Hiline Lanes and AMF 20th Century Lanes in Portland. 

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