Requiem for an Arcade
The venue for some of my most beloved childhood memories is finally being torn down after a decade of desertion.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I was recently confronted by a grim surprise while scrolling through my Facebook news feed: an artfully composed snap dated May 11, 2015, depicting the demolition of the Streatham Megabowl building.
This once thriving two-story entertainment hub—a bowling alley, video-game arcade, fast-food joint, bar, hangout for scamps, laser tag, and occasional punch-up venue rolled into one—was situated near the Brixton Hill end of southwest London's Streatham High Road, a.k.a. "Britain's Worst Street," next to Caesars nightclub (also recently torn down, having been defunct for years).
A regular haunt of my childhood in the 1990s, and a place dear to my heart, Megabowl actually closed for business back in August of 2006 after its owners, Georgica Plc, flogged it for redevelopment for a cool £8 million (about $12 million). In an accompanying statement, the company boasted that "considerable progress has been made in unlocking potential redevelopment gains." But such confidence turned out to be misguided at best; this hulking, empty shell lay untouched for the best part of a decade.
After Megabowl's closure, its continuing presence from the outside was, for this reluctant Streatham nostalgist, oddly reassuring, despite being a depressingly wasteful monument to hapless civic planning. It was also ghoulish in an off-season Overlook Hotel kind of way. Yet, even in its unloved state, the building—with its strange blend of Doric columns, un-illuminated neon signs and graffiti-scrawled steel shutters—emanated a stately air, dating back to its 1932 origins, when it first opened as the lavish 2,341-seater Gaumont Palace cinema. The Gaumont was damaged by a German V1 rocket in July of 1944, closed in 1961 and then reopened as a bowling alley in January of 1962. In 1989, four years after I was born, it was rechristened Megabowl.
So, what made Megabowl so special? What cemented its place in the pantheon of near-mythical hotspots for 90s youngsters alongside Croydon's ill-fated Water Palace, or the Discovery Zone upstairs at Clapham Junction train station (which seemed too good to be true, even when you were scrapping with another child in one of the humongous ball pits)?
First of all, it had everything a kid could want. Bowling was fun, especially the moment you realized you didn't need to use the bumpers any more; or the bit at the end when a staff member printed off your rubbish scores onto a little scrap of paper. There was a cheap fast food outlet, which briefly, excitingly, became a Burger King franchise. And then there was the truly stacked video game arcade, which always made me think of the neon-streaked lair in the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, the place where Shredder would secrete his army of dispossessed, impressionable teens. Time Crisis II; Daytona USA; the amazing Simpsons arcade game; the bizarre Final Furlong with its clunky mechanical horses; and the ludicrously violent Mortal Kombat II: Megabowl had them all, not to mention the 2p machines into which you could dispense all of your parents' spare change.
Then, of course, there was Zapp Zone: the tense, Crystal Maze-esque game of laser tag that seemed to take place inside the smoke-filled set of an early Spandau Ballet video. The adjacent upstairs bar would receive parents for a quick drink while we all charged around in the dry ice, pointing rechargeable plastic handguns at each other and shouting "peow peow."
As an all-purpose birthday party venue, Megabowl was a godsend for parents, including my own; we lived just up the road. I probably had eight consecutive parties there, and the routine was like clockwork: a warm-up in the arcade; a couple of games of bowling; a trip up to Zapp Zone (if we were lucky); and then everyone in a pincer movement down to the nearby Pizza Hut to gorge on the buffet and Ice Cream Factory, and hopefully not vomit.
There were some less joyous occasions. I had my own Paul Gascoigne Italia 90 moment when I came down with scarlet fever on my birthday. There were no mobile phones in those days, and it was far too late to cancel, so I experienced the ignominy of being driven past my own in-progress Megabowl party en route to Kings College Hospital. Then, on another birthday—maybe my 14th—I had my brand new Motorola pager (briefly cutting-edge technology) ripped from my belt chain by a light-fingered ne'er-do-well while I overconfidently pretend-ollied on Sega's Top Skater. By the time I'd clambered down, he was dust.
Most of all, though, Megabowl was special because of its recreational, community centre vibe: a southern Byker Grove minus Jeff, but with added air hockey. It's not like south London was ever crawling with relatively safe, fun spaces for kids to hang out, but Megabowl fit the bill. I remember a happily collegial vibe among the staff, who counted in their midst some genuine characters, including the stalwart security force: the towering, mild-mannered Denver, and the compact, shaven-headed "Bash", whose nom de guerre was not, I suspect, a reference to an aptitude for organising parties. Whenever trouble did kick off, it wasn't long before "Bash" and/or Denver had it on lockdown.
As the years wore on, my visits became less frequent. A couple of quick, cheap games on a Monday before 6:30 PM remained an attractive option, but there comes a time when even the most ardent Megabowl fanboy grows out of having his birthday parties there. The boxy, insalubrious McCluski's Bar was added near the front. It was sparsely frequented by a peppering of grizzled Guinness-nursers by day, and gelled-up, white-trousered WKD-sinkers come nightfall.
Even so, the sheer volume of good memories I associated with the place meant I was genuinely upset when I heard news of its sudden closure in 2006. I was living in America at the time, a little homesick, and so created the RIP Megabowl group on Facebook. Its wall swiftly filled up with rueful reminiscences. What nobody knew at that point, however, was just how long it would take for anything to happen with the venue.
Deal after deal allegedly fell through, to the chagrin of constituents, local business owners and politicians, including Streatham MP and short-lived Labour leadership candidate Chuka Umunna. "Over the last few years, I've lost count of the number of meetings I've had about the Megabowl site, or the number of people I've contacted about the issue," Umunna complained in a blog post in March of 2014. "Local cases, like that of Megabowl, tangibly show how three years of a flatlining economy can impact on an area."
Yet, while dead Megabowl festered, it was, brilliantly, used as the venue for at least one illegal rave. Later, its untended innards were documented in a series of evocative photographs by "urban explorers" with monikers like The_Raw and PlapPlap. Among the ruins, stray bowling shoes and dead foxes, the photographers discovered poignant graffiti from staff members: "May this building never be forgotten. Streatham will never be the same again without MEGABOWL," wrote one Lucy Beasley. (In case you were curious, the Megabowl company is now called "Tenpin," and currently only a handful of Megabowl-branded sites remain nationwide.)
A recent breakthrough has has been made, precipitating the demolition depicted in that heart-rending snap above. New developers London Square are promising to replace the Megabowl/Caesars site with 243 affordable new homes, a new play area for children, 3,786 square meters of retail space and, intriguingly, a new community and theatre space, all with a rumored completion date of 2019. (You can see the developers' full plans for the site here.)
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These changes are in keeping with the gradual developments in Streatham's make-up, like the 2013 re-opening of the ice rink and leisure centre at the other end of the high road; or the transformation of the old ABC cinema into a gym and luxury flats. Yet, while Streatham has ostensibly avoided the aggressive gentrification of near-neighbour Brixton, house prices have in fact increased by almost 64 percent since 2010. One therefore wonders how "affordable" these new accommodations will be. Time will tell, but whatever happens, the genius mind behind Grand Theft Auto: Streatham Hill Stories (which is a real thing that exists) will have some updating to do.
Thankfully Megabowl's Grade 2-listed facade will remain – presumably without the enormous 36 LANE BOWLING CENTRE legend – yet the rest of its destruction brings with it a finality: a full-stop to a hitherto curiously unfinished chapter of my childhood. I suppose when it comes to these sorts of things it's best to move on. Change is, ultimately, preferable to stasis. But if this latest development doesn't work out, I have an idea. Why not simply bring back Megabowl and Zapp Zone? We can all make a collective promise to each other to pretend that a long decade of wasted space and pointlessly lost jobs simply never happened. And then we can all start shooting each other again with plastic laser guns. Peow peow.
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