The biggest cultural smackdown in San Francisco for years has ended, but with no clear winner. In one corner, Gap founder Donald Fisher has been forced to abandon his plan to build a monumental new gallery in the Presidio, but he hasn't had to give up on his vanity art project completely. Let's face it, anyone looking to spend $100 million on a showcase for a billion-dollar art collection is unlikely to have too much trouble finding an alternate location. Meanwhile, the venerable Presidio Bowling Center, which was facing destruction to make way for Don's mega art shack, has escaped the wrecking ball for now, but its long-term future is still far from secure.
You may think I'm overstating the cultural signifigance of this battle royal, and you're probably right. The Fisherarium was never going to make much of an impact on the arts scene of an area already well served with internationally renowned exhibition spaces. But the Presidio Bowling Center is a different matter. It's pretty much the only place to roll in San Francisco, and losing it would leave a deep gap (no pun intended) in the city's leisure landscape.
Of course, my perspective on the importance of bowling may be a little skewed. Like most adult immigrants to the United States, my early impressions of this great nation were formed via a steady diet of exported films and TV shows where bowling looms very large indeed. From The Flintstones to Bowling for Columbine, from The Deer Hunter to The Big Lebowski, bowling alleys aren't just handy settings for characters to talk and high five, but also a representation of something quintessentially American. It's no coincidence that the serial killer hero in Dexter is a regular bowler: what better way for a homicidal psychopath to look like a regular joe?
The Big Lebowski was a particular reference point for my pre-arrival preconceptions about California. That may sound surprising, but, for all the surreal weirdness of its plot and characters, the movie is set in places that are almost banal in their ordinariness: suburban houses, diners, parking lots, and, of course, the bowling alley. So it was a shock to arrive here and find myself in a city so poorly served for 10-pin action. Sure, there are plenty of lanes close by: the Sea Bowl in Pacifica, the Classic Bowling Center in Daly City (which has hosted the "San Francisco" leg of Lebowski Fest for the past two years), the Albany Bowl in the East Bay, and more. But in San Francisco itself there's only the Presidio. (OK, technically there's a bowling alley in the Yerba Buena Center, but it's tiny and so lifeless that the ice rink next door feels warm by comparison. For the purposes of this discussion, it doesn't count.)
So is the city of San Francisco set to lose its bowling mecca, a place so dedicated to strikes, spares, and odd-colored shoes that it stays open 365 days a year, serves around 40 different types of beer, and even openly sells corn dogs? Presidio Bowling Center has been battling to stay alive ever since the Fisher gallery plan was announced in 2007 and things still don't look great, despite the recent collapse of the art museum project. It has been operating on a month-to-month basis since its long-term lease ran out in April this year, and owner Victor Meyerhoff is meeting with the Presidio Trust on August 13 to discuss the center's future. "The Presidio [Trust] has said a bowling center at the Main Post is not in its long-term plans," Meyerhoff states bluntly. "I believe our meeting will address how long we will be able to stay in our current location and also discuss the possibility of a move to Crissy Field." The Presidio Trust's plans should be finalized by the end of the year.
Presidio Bowling Center is open daily from 9am to midnight, and late until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays, at least for now. For more information, visit presidiobowl.com.