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Who in America Is Bowling Alone?

Salena Zito on

SOMERSET, Pennsylvania -- When you walk into the Terrace Lanes bowling alley on Pennsylvania State Road 31, the first thing you will see is Althea Shaw's broad smile. Her warm greeting has a way of making customers, both regulars and first-timers, feel as though they belong.

"The Sleek Family opened up their doors in November of 1995," Shaw told me. "I started exactly one year later, and I have been here ever since. As far as I am concerned, it is the best job I could ever hope for. I get to meet new people all the time, see regulars almost every day, and a lot of the regulars started here with their parents when they were just 3 years old."

It was noon on New Year's Eve, and Terrace Lanes was filling up quickly. There were several local families who piled in with their small children, followed by a group of teenagers and then several young couples. Small family groups started walking in, too, including the Nobleman and Reid families, who said they showed up on a whim.

"We are all up from Silver Springs, Maryland, for a family ski vacation at the Seven Springs resort 20 miles down the road," explained Andrew Nobleman, a federal employee. "We wanted to take the kids to do something different. We were going to bowl at the resort, but they only have three lanes, so we looked to see what was close and found this place."

"What was really fascinating to us is when we pulled up to Somerset and how vibrant it is," he said. "You read stories where small-town America is struggling, but honestly, they have everything we have back home, and it is way more affordable."

Case in point: three orders of french fries, with cheese on the side, two pretzels, also with cheese on the side, a nacho platter and a whole pizza cost a combined $14 -- and the food is good!

 

Owner Homer Sleek said he can't remember a time in his life when he wasn't bowling.

"My father opened up the first Terrace Lanes in Jerome, Pennsylvania, in 1963," he said. "I was 4 years old. I grew up as a bowling alley rat or whatever you want to call it." He went from running around the bowling alley to cleaning it and dusting the floors. "Back then, it also meant cleaning the ashtrays out," he said, laughing.

Eventually, his father sold the business to him in the late '80s. In 1995, Sleek moved the business from Jerome, population 1,000, to the "big" town of Somerset, population 12,000. This was the very same year Harvard professor Robert Putnam wrote a paper and then published a book called "Bowling Alone," a groundbreaking examination of American life that illustrated a culture not just in the throes of loneliness but turning still further inward.

Putnam argued that America's social fabric -- that glue of reliance and aspiration that formed communities in this country since Alexis de Tocqueville observed it with awe -- had frayed significantly.

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