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Martin's Bowling Alley: A Tale of the Insiders and Outsiders

Blog/NewsFebruary 21st 2018
Anthony Easton

The story of gentrification seems simple—that greedy property developers buy large tracts of land, tear them down, and build condos. Before that happens, expensive coffee shops move in, replacing family-owned businesses and pricing longstanding citizens out. It's a tale of insiders and outsiders, of interlopers moving into domestic spaces. The imminent shutdown of Martin's Bowling Alley on King and Sherman might seem to be one of those narratives.

Ordinarily, this would be an obit—for places that cannot be saved, for our refusal to take care of a built environment, or to avoid thinking of places like Martin's as heritage sites—as soul deep to our historical understanding as Dundurn Castle. But Martin (and the block) is not being torn down for fancier housing or condos, It is being torn down to make the LRT. But the question niggles: how do you preserve local history in the ambitious shadow of these projects?

The LRT is an overall good for Hamilton. Martin's is an overall good for the East End.

Transit infrastructure is more accessible, it makes the city smaller, and it works more smoothly than buses. But it means that it is easier for people to move into well-established neighbourhoods, and for those who can barely afford the neighbourhoods, to be evicted. It means we will no longer have Martin's—and the small, the local, and the quotidian is what makes a city. There seems to fewer community spaces, fewer spaces that are cheap enough to spend an afternoon in, and fewer spaces where small-scale community building can happen.

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Thoughts of progress, of large-scale community projects, and of ambition have been left to developers, often from out of town, and often whose interests do not intersect with Hamilton’s (see Brad Lamb's recent pushing of the Television City towers on Queen). The LRT is a place for growth to be read as public, to acknowledge that massive infrastructure depends on the will of the people, and that those people are often flighty, or sentimental, or prone to an explicit NIMBY-ism. The question continues to be begged: whose backyard?

If we agree that infrastructure is good for Hamilton, where does that leave local, small-scale businesses that function as community centres?

Martin is one of those small-scale, local businesses that should be considered a community centre. The place has been around for more than half a century. It’s well taken care of, and has a mid-century, well-lived-in beauty. There are hand-carved benches and a wide staircase off to the side, in soft, yellow wood. There is no electronic scoring, so it's all paper, except for the leagues, which determine score using a chalkboard on the wall farthest from the door. They serve Labatt 50 and Canadian Club, Uncle Ray's chips. It is a working-class place, in a working-class town.

Jimmy, the current owner, pushes that working-class vibe. He has been there for more than three decades. Even when first-generation immigrants have moved to Stoney Creek, and young families move to the east end, the community's love for Jimmy and his bowling alley grows deeper. There are leagues almost every day of the week, and kids’ birthday parties on weekends. People have bachelor parties and baby showers there. It is never not busy, and business is good.

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Jimmy is being paid quite a bit of money to vacate his business, for a larger social good. The question of how much Jimmy is getting paid, and what he is getting paid for, complicates this matter. He will tell you that he is not getting paid for the refurbished and new equipment, that the bowling alley square footage should include the equipment behind the back wall. I trust Jimmy to tell me how much a bowling alley is worth, and I think we should be more generous, rather than less. We should pay Jimmy for his time, and because of this heritage.

But two arguments emerge, caught in a tension so perfectly symbolic of the ongoing crisis of Hamilton. The first is, how do we preserve Martin's? The bowling alley, the perfectly printed 1950s signs, the benches, the score sheets, that chalkboard, and those lanes. But also, how do we preserve the idea of Martin's? Is there any place left that sells Labatt 50? Is there any place for the seniors, who have been in the same league for decades? Though it is a business, it is also a social hub, one that cannot be constructed, but has to be built carefully up through accretion. The second is, how do we preserve this forward-thinking call for infrastructure?

I wonder if part of the struggle is to keep in mind memories of locations, to acknowledge history shifting, and to recognize our place in that shifting. To make the bowling alley a symbol means that we don't remember the actual bowling that takes place there, but also who bowled. If Martin's provided a place for the cross-section of working-class Hamilton leisure, the proper memory of it should be to continue thinking of places like Martin's worth preserving, but also to go down swinging—to recognize that working-class leisure itself is worth preserving, in every capacity that we have. Let it not all be Whitherns and Dundurns. Maybe we could just move Martin's— lock, stock, and bowling pin—to the basement of Whitehern.

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