DETROIT – Joe Zainea’s love for people can be felt the moment he shakes your hand as a gracious welcome to the Detroit bowling alley that’s been in his family for more than 70 years.
Zainea, affectionately known as “Papa Joe,” beams with pride as he recalls his father’s purchase of the Garden Bowl on Woodward Avenue in 1946.
“The owner had died and the wife wanted to sell it. My dad came down here and she decided to sell it to him right on the dime,” Zainea said. “Bowling was for everyone; a working-man’s country club.”
The alley was built in 1913, and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s the oldest bowling alley, commercial establishment, in the United States,” Zainea said. “And Detroit is actually the largest bowling population in the United States … I think the bowling registry for metro Detroit at one time was 500,000 bowlers.”
The 16-lane alley is complete with original Brunswick machines, neon lights, DJs and an open-door policy – one that Zainea said helped heal a community during a dark time.
“In the early 60s, we had about 1,500 league bowlers. In the 1967/68 season, we had 300. That was just a month-and-a-half after the rebellion,” Zainea said. “Most people refer to them as a riot, I call them a rebellion.”
Zainea was at Tiger Stadium when he first saw the billows of black smoke rise up into the city’s landscape.
“The announcer said, ‘Please leave the stadium orderly and avoid the Grand River and Northwest area,’” Zainea said.
When he got back to the bowling alley, it was packed with people, mostly business owners who had been ordered by the city to shut down because of a curfew.
“It was traumatic days,” Zainea said. “There was a tank on our parking lot across the street, and the rifles were tri-podded, right on my parking lot.”
The family put out a call for police, firemen, National Guard members and anyone else needing relief to come bowl.
“I’d have neighboring businesses call me up and say, ‘How’s my business?’ And I told them, ‘Why don’t you come down here? You’ve got sons just like my brother and I, let them come down and tend to their business, protect it,’” Zainea said. “They didn’t want to do that. They said it was too dangerous. Well, it wasn’t dangerous here; I can assure you of that.”
As a large portion of the city’s population began migrating out of downtown, Zainea said his family had a decision to make.
“Do we follow our customers and close up? Or do we stay?” he said.
His family stayed and started the Learn to Bowl Plus program to rebuild the bowling population.
The alley offered four weeks of free bowling to anyone who taught bowling classes, with the end goal of turning the learners into league bowlers.
“On the fifth week, if you were one of the teachers and you organized the league, we would end up paying you half of what I took in,” Zainea said. “It really sparked something. By 1970, we had 2,800 bowlers.”
Zainea credits one thing to the longevity of his family’s bowling business.
“They key is that those doors are open to everybody,” he said. “It’s a matter of hospitality, and that’s engrained in our bodies. We don’t just have them bowl, take their money and have them leave, we know them. We embrace them.”