One Monday evening in May, members of the Splitzkrieg league begin to arrive at Village Lanes in East Durham. Some drag suitcases up to the door, which has a stenciled sign posted to it: “Going Out of Business Balls $25.”

The suitcases also contain balls, specially weighted, that the most serious participants bring with them on league nights. Broadly speaking, though, Splitzkrieg is not particularly serious: described by some members as the “aging indie rocker” league, it has met every other Monday night since 2007, mostly as an excuse to socialize.

“We started out with 10 teams and expanded to 20,” explains Russ Dean, who runs Splitzkrieg. “We are known to be the ‘not good bowling league’—but bowling is secondary.”

When Village Lanes was built in the early 1960s, bowling was at an all-time high: investment in the industry was so intense that it caused a “bowling bubble” and the number of alleys doubled to 11,000 by 1963. But—like malls, arcades, and other recreational spaces—bowling alleys began to recede in number and prominence toward the end of the twentieth century. The bubble burst.

In 2012, only 3,470 alleys were open nationwide, and by 2022, that number dropped to 2,849. This year, Village Lanes joins the ranks of the shuttered. 

Owner Renee Dennis declined to comment for this story, stating that the sale of the space had not finalized. 

“While our business has been successful, thanks to so many loyal customers, we are choosing to close Village Lanes to focus on other endeavors,” business management wrote in their official statement. “There are plans to sell the property and the buyer plans to repurpose the building for another use.”

On May 31, the bowling alley closes for good.

Tonight, though, Village Lanes is alive and well. Outside, the parking lot is hemmed by woods and the lurking early-summer scent of wisteria; inside, 20 teams, each composed of four players, are spread across the alley’s 40 lanes, crowding around pitchers of light beer to wait their turn. The alley’s interior seems frozen in amber, with a vintage palette of seafoam blues and salmon pinks. It’s one of the last alleys to still have wooden lanes, and the scoreboard consoles are decades old.

Every few seconds, the conversation din across the room is intercepted, ever so slightly, by the faint sound of a ball making contact with pins.

“It’s a lot of math,” Dean says from his seat at one of the scoreboards, where he is manually inputting teams into the system. Since 2007, he’s kept a spreadsheet of every team’s scores. Exactly two bowlers, in the 15 years since the league’s genesis, have scored 300: Mike DePasquale in 2018, and Geoffrey Berry in 2022. Perfect games.

Jennifer Peters, a member of a team named Valley of the Balls, moved to Durham in 2010 and joined the league at a friend’s suggestion.

“She said, ‘If you want to meet people in Durham, come bowl,’” Peters says. Shortly thereafter, Peters met her future husband, Mark Oates, at a league night. They’ve been married since 2020 and still show up every Monday, though they’ve agreed to keep a healthy competitive buffer between them, with membership on different teams.

“We’ve bucked the trend,” Dean says of Splitzkrieg. “We’ve been able to keep people coming out after all these leagues died out.”

Splitzkrieg league bowlers at Village Lanes. Photo by Brett Villena.

Two decades ago, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone, a treatise on the disintegrating fabric of American social life.

Where people had once gathered in churches and participated in clubs, Putnam reasoned, suburban sprawl and the deteriorating labor laws of the postwar years caused individuals to work longer hours, further apart, conditioning Americans to become functionally atomized. The rising number of solo bowlers was just one example of the phenomenon. 

In lower-income areas, these factors are exacerbated by an alarming inequity of public spaces. Studies have long demonstrated that areas with high poverty rates correlate with lower access to recreational areas, particularly well-maintained ones, making the community spaces that do exist particularly precious.

In East Durham, Village Lanes and Wheels Fun Park have long served as two such spaces. Village Lanes has been a community fixture, with abundant programming for both children and adults, for sixty years. And for 40 years, Wheels, a skating rink that sits just a little over a mile from the bowling alley, off North Hoover Road, has been a hangout spot particularly beloved by young people—a destination for grade school birthday parties and a first taste of Friday-night independence for generations of teenagers careening around the rink to “Y.M.C.A.” 

In 2020, after owner Becky Olbrych decided to retire, the city announced that it would buy Wheels and turn it into Splash & Play, a community aquatics center. When residents advocated that the skating rink be retained in Splash & Play designs, the city folded it back in.

Over the phone with the INDY, Durham Parks and Recreation culture and community manager Mary Unterreiner confirmed that the projected opening date for the skating rink is spring 2024, followed by the aquatics center in 2027.

Village Lanes has had a less happy ending. When its sale was announced earlier this year, the news caught employees, many of whom have a long history with the alley, by surprise. Bryson Rogers, manager of the Village Lanes pro shop, has worked at the business for 13 years. Ownership told him it was “just time,” he says, but he wishes he had been given enough notice to come up with a way to save the bowling alley.

“I don’t know if they can see the future and economic collapse, or if they were just retiring,” Rogers says. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get a true answer, but the facility itself was profitable. It was making money.”

Village Lanes loyalists affirm the demand.

“My kids have had their birthdays here,” says Eric Thomas, a Splitzkrieg bowler. “It’s ingrained in the community. We can go somewhere else in Durham, but in an area changing so quickly, we’re losing such a cool place.”

“It was something like a church,” Rogers says. “Like a church community, on a weekly basis, with fellowship.”

“We are known to be the ‘not good bowling league’—but bowling is secondary,” says Russ Dean, who runs Splitzkrieg. Photo by Brett Villena.

Bowling Alone was published in 2000, just after the advent of the internet and years before the COVID-19 pandemic splintered public life, making all of us—particularly older Americans—just a bit more lonely.

For its part, Village Lanes hosted two bowling leagues specifically for seniors. Fred Cooley, a Village Lanes employee who helped lay the concrete down for the lane renovations back in 1989, says that the business is one of the only spots in East Durham where seniors have been able to enjoy time together. Unlike some of the recreational sports to pick up recent traction, like pickleball, bowling doesn’t require excess mobility.

Rather, the art lies in experience and precision: in the grip, address, and release of the ball.

“A lot of elders bowl in three or four leagues ’cause they don’t have a lot to do,” Cooley says. “They can barely walk to the lane—but then it’s a strike every time.”

Dean fondly remembers bowling for many years next to the Hazel Plummers, a senior league named after a particularly prolific elder bowler. After he began seeing obituaries with the Hazel Plummers league as a proud biographical footnote, he jokes that it became a “goal” for Splitzkrieg to be in people’s lives so long that it ended up in their obituaries.

Eddie Barnes is 77 and has been bowling at Village Lanes for 40 years alongside his wife, Evelyn. The couple goes bowling at the lanes on Wednesdays and Fridays. For many years, Barnes was on the cusp of a perfect game with multiple scores of 299. 

In 2018, at a tournament, he bowled a 300. To this day, he wears a ring with the date of the game engraved on it.

“Just about all of our friends are bowlers,” Barnes says.

Teresa Faulkner worked at Village Lanes for many years, practically raising her son behind the front desk. When he applied to college, he won a scholarship for bowling.

“People don’t have a lot of affordable places [to go to],” she says. “It took everything else away from the seniors and youth. Everywhere else, you gotta drive.”

In the Triangle, there are only a handful of bowling alleys left, and in Durham, there is now just one—Bowlero Durham, just off 15-501, which belongs to the Bowlero corporation. On May 22, Village Lanes—which had already been unofficially closed for a week—opened its doors to Splitzkrieg one last time. About 100 people showed up to celebrate the space and the community they’ve built in it. 

You could say that Village Lanes is the relic of another era or an older Durham. But perhaps you could also say that about any good and unprotected part of the city.  

Begrudgingly, people are moving on. Dean says that Splitzkrieg will decamp to Bowlero. Faulkner, who is described by members of Splitzkrieg as the “fairy godmother” of the group, affectionately says that she will “follow the league” anywhere, and Rogers has been hired for a new job as operations manager at Bowlero.

Eventually, he hopes to find an investor who will help fund the opening of a new Durham bowling alley.

Cooley, meanwhile, isn’t sure of his next steps. But he loves bowling and loves the steady care it inspires. For years, when not himself participating, he’s watched bowlers cast balls down the wooden lanes.

“It’s not about how hard you do it,” he says. “It’s about putting the ball in the right place.”

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