Bowled over

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 April, 2005, 12:00am

Hidden away in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the world's busiest, is one of Manhattan's biggest bowling alleys. It is deep in one of the terminal's two main buildings, and has always been somewhat incongruous. Many are unaware of its existence, even those who have been in the city for a long time, and even many of the 200,000 people who use the station every day.

To bowl there is to be shaken by the rumblings of one of the hundreds of buses that leave or arrive at the station every hour. Friends take some persuading to go there for a night out: it is all about the address (which is not quite hip enough).

But the image is much better than it used to be, and it may be about to get a whole lot trendier. Indeed, the bowling alley's transformation over the years is symbolic of many of the changes in New York since the late 1980s, and in particular it reflects the cleaning up of the once tawdry Times Square, one block east.

The new Danish owners of the alley, currently known as Leisure Time, intend to spend US$10 million on renovating it and turning it into a sophisticated bowling and entertainment centre, complete with classy restaurants, a private bowling area with staff, for VIPs, and a new disco. There will be less pepperoni pizza and more medium-rare peppered steak. There was a taste of how things might be, near the end of New York Fashion Week, when supermodels invaded the bowling centre for a charity event for tsunami victims.

It never used to be like this. Back in the late 1980s, the bus terminal was widely regarded as a nightmare; somewhere to be hurried through as best one could - a place dominated by the homeless, prostitutes, drug dealers, con artists, luggage thieves and just about every other inner-city menace imaginable. Even using a public phone was often impossible as they were commandeered by hustlers.

The bowling centre, known then as Mid City Lanes, was hardly any better than its surroundings. Thomas Roballey, who took it over in 1991, told newspapers at the time that it had been like a dungeon. Sometimes, the homeless worked there so that they could have a safer place to sleep. Drunkenness was rife. A video arcade in the centre attracted a group of violent players.

Mr Roballey managed to change that, and make it a place that the average commuter could afford to occasionally visit for a quick game of bowling and a cocktail before hitting the road. For them, the question will be whether the glitz and glamour will come at a price they cannot afford - a question that is being asked about a lot of life in Manhattan these days.