Save the Bowl!
Call or e-mail The Board of Supervisors:
Mabel Teng (Chair)
For more info on upcoming hearings,
Call or e-mail
The Board of Supervisors:
Mabel Teng (Chair)
For more info on upcoming hearings,
by Jim Provenzano
It's playing out like a classic tale of folklore: the evil robber barons, motivated by pure greed, sell a popular business, evicting a community of minorities.
But the scenario, while cliché, is as real and cruel as the current Bay Area climate of bloated rent hikes and dot-com takeovers.
At a City Hall hearing of the Housing and Social Policy Committee Tuesday, August 1, over 200 concerned community members faced off against one evasive representative of the foreign-owned Kintetsu Enterprises Co. of America, owners of the popular Japantown Bowl, where gays, lesbians, and many other members of San Francisco's diverse community have enjoyed the alley for 24 years.
A Japanese railroad conglomerate which also owns the Miyako Hotel and other businesses in Japantown, Kintetsu is acting in a swift and utterly confounding manner, according to some community members who regularly bowl there. Kintetsu plans to permanently shut down the bowling alley before selling it, without providing any recreational substitute for the thousands of people who use it each year.
Despite efforts to "quietly" pay off employees and rush through the Sutter Street building sale four months ago, word spread quickly among bowlers and Asian American residents of the popular district.
At a passionate July 26 community meeting organized by Japantown Bowl's neighbors, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, several hundred people also showed up to express their outrage and concern about the impending September 20 closing.
"A lot of people feel there's nothing we can do about it, but it's not sold," said Christopher Hirano, director of community development for the JCCCNC. "Until it's sold there's no reason to close it."
The JCCNC had attempted to propose to buy the building, or ensure that whoever buys it keeps the bowling alley open. Representatives from Bank of America had even advised the center's committee on a loan plan.
But after abrupt and short-term talks, Kintetsu rejected their proposal outright, according to Hirano.
But at the August 1 City Hall hearing before Supervisors Mabel Teng, Sue Bierman, Alicia Becerril, and Michael Yaki, things took a different turn. (An avid bowler, but not on the committee, Yaki assisted in the hearing.)
Colin Gomez, general manager of Kintetsu, claimed that it was the JCCCNC panel that rejected their proposal. Several heads shook no as Gomez rattled off the only testimony supporting the closure. "After watching the business decline," Gomez said, "we no longer see it as a viable business."
"But several news articles say it's turning a profit," said Yaki.
"Yes, it is," Gomez admitted. A half million dollars a year, in fact. Gomez admitted that Japantown Bowl is making money through admissions, rentals, concessions, and leases. Not enough for Kintetsu, which stands to make millions from the building sale.
Gomez claimed that the bowling alley "did not meet expectations" in the past 10 years, and falsely claimed that participation in bowling has decreased over the past few years.
JCCCNC's Hirano provided facts to dispute that; 50.6 million people in the U.S. alone bowl regularly. In Japantown, bowling also brings in millions of dollars to restaurants, parking, shops, and nearby businesses.
The testimony of Paul Osaki, JCCCNC's executive director, passionately refuted Gomez's claims that the center did not provide a strong proposal.
"We matched what Kintetsu asked [a buyout of $6.7 million] in our proposal," Osaki said. "We ask that no demolition start until a study is done. How much more can we eliminate rec centers before we have nowhere to go? Our community is not a Monopoly board."
Bierman expressed what many in the non-bowling community may be feeling. "It caught me by surprise. It really shocked me," she said of how people take such a facility for granted.
But while all the supervisors expressed a sentiment toward the majority, no actual resolutions were made to prevent the inevitable sale and closure.
Nevertheless, many who showed up for the hearing will continue to fight. In the past two months, the cities of Carson and Cupertino saved their neighborhood centers from closing by passing local legislation.
Adolphus Thomas, past president of the California State Bowling Association, also countered Gomez's claims. If bowling is decreasing, he said, "It's not because people don't want to bowl, but that space is diminishing. Another tragedy is about to happen."
What was so impressive about the hearing was the number of youth present, so many that they had to fill a second room and watch the proceedings on television.
James, a youth director at Japantown Bowl, who's been bowling for 10 years, collected the first 1,000 signatures on a petition protesting the closure. "This is hitting us hard," he said.
Many other community members voiced varied perspectives on the cruelty and stupidity of such a change. Seniors harkened back to the World War II days of Japanese internment camps. Middle-aged people recalled the troublesome era of messy San Francisco development in the 1970s and 1980s, when several hundred people were displaced in Chinatown to make room for a still-vacant lot, what one woman called "a hole in the ground."
Debate still continues over what, if anything, can be done to slow or halt the potential decimation of the Bay Area's unique indoor bowling space. Many implored the panel, chaired by Teng, to demand an assessment study. Others suggested the city buy the property, or offer a deal with Kintetsu.
Other newspaper reports allege that a sale may have already occurred, something that Gomez refused to admit or deny at the hearing.
It's been said that the entire building will be gutted and converted into a private corporation. The offices will possibly be filled with computer servers for a number of dot-com companies, with few employees, and faux-Asian (but not Asian-owned) boutiques or shops on the street-level entrance. George Yamasaki, one of the identified investors in the sale, called for "Japanese-oriented" businesses.
Kintetsu refuses to provide a list of entirely who they will sell or have sold to. Among the investors are Yamasaki; Brian Black, a scholar currently living in India; and Tom Esperance, an accountant and property manager. None of these investors appeared at community hearings and meetings.
"The gay and lesbian leagues provide a really important social place outside of bars," said Carol Hull, who wore a fashionable bowling pin necklace. "We also helped distribute over $200,000 to bowlers and other people with AIDS" through benefits held at Japantown Bowl.
Hull proposed a zoning variance to include recreation as a definition of the property use, something currently lacking in the property's definition. She also put forth the concept of a variance to allow construction to move above or below the bowling alley.
Christopher Johnson, vice president of the Sydney 2002 Gay & Lesbian Bowling League that's training for competition at Gay Games VI, wore a team T-shirt with bold pink triangles, and mentioned how few leagues in the Bay Area have such a facility. Like others, he questioned Kintetu's elusive behavior. "Why have the conditions been kept so secretive?"
"We've attracted bowlers from around the world for our tournaments," Johnson said. "I encourage the board to look at this, the last major bowling center in San Francisco."
Like softball, bowling is one of the first organized gay and lesbian sports in the world. Many say it started in San Francisco.
Also in attendance was longtime bowler Miguel Thurman, who noted that GL leagues have already begun to emigrate to other lanes in the Presidio, Serra Bowl in Daly City, and as far away as Pacifica.
The additional problem is that each of these facilities is only a 12-lane alley, while Japantown remains the only 40-lane alley in the entire Bay Area. With almost 30 leagues that include GLBT people, "I can't imagine them all finding a place," Thurman said.
This issue is lowest among the priorities of Kintetsu Enterprises Co. of America, whose prime objective at the hearing was obfuscation. Even their name is misleading, since the company is actually based in Japan. While claiming that it was a "painful decision," Gomez called on the capacity crowd to "remember the 24 years in a good light."
Other community members spoke with varying levels of passion and sensitivity, highlighting the crossroads between youth, senior, Asian and GLBT communities that Japantown Bowl has served for over two decades.
Kevin Morano had the lease on his pro shop (located in Japantown Bowl) expire August 1, the day of his testimony. "I don't know where I'll be going," he said with concern.
A number of teenagers from several Asian communities mentioned gay and lesbian bowlers as part of the community threatened by the unwanted closure of the alley.
"We deserve more than this," said teenager Tony Fu. "A lot of people will be mad; seniors, gays, lesbians, youth. It's a big mistake."
Four Asian girls collectively stated how the bowling alley is one of few safe places for girls to meet and hang out.
Andrew Hill, an African American and recent graduate of Galileo High School, started a league at his school, and noted "bowling teaches sportsmanship and community."
Fourteen-year-old Felix Fong put forth possibly the most touching speech among the two-minute testimonies. "There is nothing like a kid's face lighting up with joy after bowling for the first time," he said. "This is a second home to us. Taking the alley away is like taking a piece of our hearts."