“Harlem Loses Its Bowling Alley” was part of the headline for an article in the New York Times on August 6, 2012. The article told the story, not of some hallowed bowling alley from the time when life was simpler, but from 2006 when with great fanfare and former President Clinton in attendance, Harlem once again had a bowling alley decades after its last one closed in the 1980s.
At first the modern facility enjoyed great success but with the economic decline in 2008 and perhaps other reasons, the bowling alley has come on hard times and closed. The article states “some of the last patrons of Harlem Lanes lamented the loss of another local establishment.” A camp counselor at the Harlem Y.M.C.A. who brought kids there four or five times each summer said as they bowled there for the last time, “It’s a bittersweet day.”
Naturally the story immediately brought to mind the book that became a phrase in popular culture, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam. His book reported how the community associations that once were the fabric of life that so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville as one of the strengths of this country were unraveling as community life disintegrated. Think back to the revered place civic organizations, the clubs, the PTAs, and the local religious and political organizations that once were the life of the community. Think back to the Norman Rockwell paintings of Main Street in your town with all the local merchants and store owners whose kids attended the same schools you did and participated in the same games and local holidays as you. Think back to Jane Jacobs writing on The Death and Life of Great American Cities with its “descriptions of street life as a kind of ballet” in which everyone participated. And think of the destruction of the once glorious Penn Station that heralded the absence of life in the new constructions that came to define the country. If you wake up in a Marriott with a Starbucks by the Interstate, where are you? What town? What state? What country?
This new way of life easily can be glimpsed along our highways and byways. Whereas once the Fishkill Dutch First Reformed Church was on the main street of the community, it now sits just off the vastly widened Route 9. Lining this big road is one shopping complex of chain stores after another, from the Van Wyck Homestead where American troops camped during the Revolution and were buried on land since built over, all the way to Poughkeepsie. Or consider Amsterdam, where the factories of the Mohawk Mills Carpet once carpeted the world. Route 5, a route once traveled by the Mohawks that hugs the Mohawk River, became the King’s Highway and paralleled the Erie Canal, the train, and the Interstate. Now Route 5 has been surpassed as the center of the community with Route 30 and its series of shopping centers with chain stores. And so it goes.
In the May issue of The Atlantic there was an article entitled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” It began with a notice about former playmate and b-movie actress who didn’t bowl alone, but died alone. For who knows how long she lay dead alone in her apartment before someone realized something was wrong. The article referred to her “web of connections,” the same imagery and metaphor frequently used to refer to an organism being part of a web of life. The article was about our increased detachment from each other as life more and more is through a computer which is where I am writing this and how you will be receiving it regardless of the particular device you use for emails and website connectivity, since that is the real connection which matters today.
The problem raised is the increased loneliness of the Matrix generation. If a tree falls in the woods and it is not on YouTube, has anything happened? I love the commercial with the live-at-home adult daughter and her over 600 Facebook friends wondering if her the cute picture of a dog one of her “friends” sent is a real dog or not while she criticizes her parents who are zooming around in their car meeting friends in person to have fun for only having 17 (or is it 19?) online friends. Such an empty life these parents devoid of Facebook friends lead! And the daughter who loves her parents is so concerned about their happiness. The commercial of the adult son living at home whose mother didn’t cook dinner for him tells a similar story. The image of the son who knows how to cook dinner at the microwave while his parents are out meeting real people is priceless.
Not to worry, Good Humor is to the rescue. On June 11, 2012, as reported in The Journal News, Joe Villardi, ice cream truck operator for 59 years in the city of White Plains and the town of Greenburgh, died. His death led to loyal customers contacting Good Humor to honor his memory. And yes, the effort included a “We Love Joe the Good Humor Man!” Facebook page that gathered 2000 members and counting. Susie McCaughey, now of Wichita but raised in White Plains, led the effort saying, “He affected thousands of lives in a positive way. He taught kids to be polite, and he made sure, and he made sure that every kid got ice cream, whether they could pay or not. He must be remembered.” Truly, Joe Villardi belongs in the George Bailey Hall of Fame.
McCaughey’s calls to Unilever, the parent of Good Humor, left her in a bad humor. Similarly Madge Anderson, now of Tarrytown, did not have good words to say about her experience with them either. She said, “He was more than just our ice cream man. He treated everyone like they were special–he remembered all of our names and what we truly liked. He truly cared about people and it showed.” Finally, on August 6, 2012, White Plains celebrated Good Humor Joe Day and Good Humor distributed free ice cream at one of Joe’s regular stops. Joe never married and had no children but when he died he didn’t die alone forgotten in his apartment. A friend who calls him her uncle plans to keep his memory alive.
Joe Villardi will never appear on a statewide social studies test. There may never be an infamous blue New York State history marker along his truck route. In the years to come he may be forgotten, but is there any doubt that he was part of the web of life, the social fabric, the connectiveness of a community? I remember looking at photos and news clippings in the Walter Elwood Museum in Amsterdam pre-Irene of all the organizations and clubs that made up the fabric of the community back when Amsterdam was a carpet-manufacturing powerhouse. These are the stories of our communities, of the places where we live, of the fabric of life. These are the stories we need to tell and remember to maintain and nurture the web of life, the organism of community so we don’t bowl or die alone. We are a story-telling species but all our stories don’t have to be about people who changed the entire world, just our own, where we live. These are the stories we should be telling in out historical societies and our schools, “I remember Joe, the richest man in town.”
PS: Best Buy is concerned that people visit the stores to see an item and then go home and buy it on-line from Amazon. Chain stores may not be the way of the future. What will we do with all those malls, then?
Peter Feinman founder and president of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, a non-profit organization which provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development program for teachers, public programs including leading Historyhostels and Teacherhostels to the historic sites in the state, promotes county history conferences and the more effective use of New York State Heritage Weekend and the Ramble.