Greenpoint used to have a bowling alley (other than the Gutter). Like many local businesses that run their course, the bowling alley eventually closed. But Greenpoint Bowl’s departure was not just a loss for a place to have parties and fun — these alleys can also, as Gabe Jacobs’ delightful and insightful documentary illuminates, be a spirited home for fostering community.
In “A Place to Bowl”, Greenpoint resident Jacobs captures the vibrancy of the Astoria Bowl in Queens, a breathing relic in a changing city that offers the senior league a place for communion and camaraderie. In this week’s Thursday Spotlight, we dive into Jacobs’ love for the sport, inspiration for the doc, and discovery of the vitality he hopes we too see in these seemingly frivolous places.
The angle of this short film (doc?) is so specific. How did it take shape?
The film is actually very personal, which is probably why the angle is so specific. About two years ago I started bowling a lot with my brother. I was living in Greenpoint, and he was living in Ridgewood at the time. It was hard to find a bowling alley that actually treated bowling seriously. A lot of the bowling alleys you find now in the city are either too expensive to play on a regular basis or really operate more as a bar or arcade, rather than a bowling alley. Ya know, lots of neon lights… Finding Astoria Bowl was when the bowling obsession really took flight. I would go bowling whenever I didn’t have work and would spend hours alone in the alley, trying desperately to get a perfect game (highest is 248!).
That’s when I started to notice all the other bowlers around me, including the senior league. After a few times of awkwardly making eye-contact with some of the guys, I finally mustered the courage to introduce myself. I told them I was new to the sport, but that I loved it. We talked about different bowling balls and different oil patterns, and about professional bowling, which most of my friends knew nothing about. For the senior league, bowling was everything. It wasn’t really about the scoreboard like it was for me. It was simply a place to be together, and that’s all it needed to be. As Gene puts it in the film, “What else could you ask for?” That is what was so beautiful to me, and that’s what I felt needed to be filmed, and shared with the world.
Is that bowling alley still open during COVID, and if not any news on how the community is staying connected?
Unfortunately the alley has been closed since New York went on lockdown. The governor has not included bowling alleys on the list of Phase 4 establishments that may open. Just the other day, Astoria Bowl made a social media post about four members of the community (none in the film) that have passed away from COVID. It’s truly awful what is happening. I haven’t heard yet from any members of the senior league, but I am sure it has been very hard, and even unsafe, for them to see each other. It must be terrible.
When did you shoot, and how long was the editing process? Are there any gems that didn’t make it to the final cut?
The whole film came together very slowly. Some documentary filmmakers have a vision and know exactly what they are doing from the start, but this was not the case here. I was leaving it pretty open-ended, which was scary, because this was one of the first times I was sinking my own money into a film. Thus, the first day of shooting (summer of 2019) was very much an experiment. I filmed Elaine opening up the alley, and I also did interviews with the people I sensed had stories to tell. I interviewed Gene and Butch, but also two other bowlers that didn’t make the final cut. I talked to each one about separate aspects of bowling, trying to figure out what direction I wanted to go. Editing with only that first day of footage was a huge pain. So often in the past I had chosen to value imagery over story, and I didn’t want to make that sacrifice this time around.
So after two months of being stuck, I decided to go back and take a different approach to filmmaking. This time, I would be much more hands off, focusing entirely on Gene, the manager of the senior league. He was the one that had the perspective I wanted to share. It was his outlook on life, his charm, and the way that he and his friends interacted with one another, that truly caught my attention. It was the slice of life that needed to be captured. The completely natural and uninhibited moments we captured of Gene and the guys chit-chatting really makes the movie, in my opinion. From then on, I knew that I could say something important, just by creating this window into the world of bowling that was the senior league. Although I had plenty of great quotes and footage about professional bowling, and the intricacies of the sport, I put that all aside to show the side of bowling that has mostly been forgotten. When the editing process was over, it was March, and the pandemic had just hit New York. I knew it was not the time to release it. Then in May, George Floyd was killed, and COVID was still surging with no end in sight. Those sort of things were on my mind, and I knew they were on all of my friends’ minds as well. It just wasn’t appropriate to tell people to pay attention to bowling at that time. So I sat on it for months, not knowing when I would release it. Finally, it felt like the right time in July, with the alley still closed, and with in-person community feeling like a distant memory not just to the bowlers, but to nearly everyone.
I assume you identify as a filmmaker; what production company created this film, and what are your aspirations?
The film is totally self-funded and self-produced. I have a small production company that I have been running for a little less than a year called Turtle Down Films. Currently it’s just myself, and I usually do all the shooting, directing, and editing, but I hope that one day it will be a bigger team and I’ll be able to afford hiring more people. Right now I am looking for new opportunities and am open to taking on new jobs as a cinematographer and director. This short feels like a big step for me in my career. It gives me the confidence to make something even bigger, but also the realistic expectation of how much work it takes to do it. It really takes a lot of time and money. Years, even. I know, though, that if I find the right subject, I would be more than happy to do it all over again.
You live in the nabe! What does it mean to be a part of this community — artistically, socially, etc?
Living in Greenpoint has been an integral part of my film career. I worked at Mssng Peces, whose office was miraculously on my block, where Noble Street hits Manhattan. I’ve met other filmmakers too who live in the neighborhood, some of which have done screenings at Stuart Cinema and The Wythe Hotel. Greenpoint has really gotten me on my feet in this world and I’m really grateful for it. Socially, oh my god, I love Greenpoint. I would hate myself forever if I didn’t use this opportunity to tell everyone to go to Polka Dot on Manhattan Avenue. It’s THE BEST. Get the potato cheese perogies, and if there is a table are open, stay for a little and enjoy the homey ambiance.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Gene’s home bowling alley used to be Greenpoint Bowl (now Greenpoint Wood Exchange). After some googling, I found out a little more about Greenpoint Bowl. One community member said online, “I remember the Greenpoint Bowl only too well. My brother and I used to go there almost every Saturday back when bowling was an affordable fun thing to do.” I think that sentiment sums it up pretty well. For one, it reminded me of my own experience, of finding bowling with my brother, and then quickly making it a habit that I looked forward to every week. But more importantly, it reminds us that these sort of places are slowly leaving our lives (or becoming harder to find). The thought of there being enough cheap real estate in Greenpoint that a bowling alley could exist and be affordable to locals, seems unfathomable now, doesn’t it? Even in Astoria, it’s tough. I hope the film encourages us all to value, sustain, and create more of these communal spaces. I think we would all benefit greatly if there were more of them, closer to where we live and work. It’s really hard to feel a part of a community in NYC, and Greenpointers does an incredible job of connecting us, but we could be doing even more. Part of the reason I showed myself at the end of the film, was to send a message to my friends and people my age. It’s up to us to keep these sort of spaces like Astoria Bowl going, or else the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than ourselves will slowly slip away.