Bowling alley acts like community center in Daly City

The neighborhood of Westborough straddles the border between Daly City and South San Francisco. It’s a mostly residential area, with quiet sloping streets full of brown and beige town homes built in the 50s and 60s. Before that time, this area was undeveloped farmland and open space. A frenzy of construction after World War II created the neatly planned housing tracts and shopping centers that make up the bulk of Daly City today.

Though much smaller than San Francisco, Daly City is unique demographically: its population is nearly 60 percent Asian, the highest of any U.S. city outside of Hawaii. That population has grown exponentially through the last few decades, and the way it has shaped the community can be seen in one Westborough shopping plaza. Perched at the top of a hill on King Drive, the plaza contains a dental building, an Asian supermarket, two nail salons, Chinese and Filipino restaurants, and a kind of community center you might not expect: the biggest,  most partying bowling alley in Northern California.

At 1:30am on a recent Friday night, Keith Okada, who goes by Keith O, presides over Classic Bowling Center in Westborough. He has managed the bar here for 10 years. He strolls down the carpeted walkway behind the bowling lanes, waving and greeting regulars as hip hop music booms from the speakers. With almost all of its 60 lanes in use, at four to five people per lane, there are easily 200 people in here, all laughing, talking, munching on calamari, sipping beer, and, of course, bowling.

Say the words, “bowling alley,” and a lot of people will still picture a bunch of old white men in bowling shirts and polyester blend pants. Or maybe a scene from the Coen Brothers’ movie “The Big Lebowksi”. Whatever they are picturing, chances are it doesn’t quite match the scene here tonight: an ethnically diverse – though mostly Asian – crowd of young men and women, with no polyester pants in sight.

Daly City has had a high Filipino population since the 80s, earning it the nickname the “Pinoy Capitol.” Keith O., who is Japanese American, has lived in the neighborhood his whole life. “Most of my best friends I grew up with were Filipino, my wife’s Filipino,” he says. “Now, every race you could almost think of is here.”

Once people come to Classic, they tend to stay. Thirty-one-year-old Daly City native Ellen Dario comes here weekly for a bowling date with old friends from the neighborhood. She actually came to Classic for the first time after her prom in 1998. “At that time I came in with my fake nails, my dress, and my Nike Dunks,” she recalls.

Freddy Cooper has been Classic’s weekend manager for 16 years. He is African American, originally from Baltimore, and says he enjoys the diversity of the crowd at Classic. “When you work in a job where you get to meet different people all the time, it’s kind of fun,” he says.

One of the people Keith O enjoyed meeting at Classic is now his wife. There are pictures of the two of them DJ-ing together on the signs that point the way to the bar – the bar which is named the “KO” Sports Bar and Lounge. Keith O is actually all over this place. He has his own bobble-head doll and custom Topps trading cards with his face emblazoned on them. There even used to be a life-sized cut-out of him near the entrance.

It might sound excessive, but it’s all intentional. Keith O says that when he was a kid he didn’t have many adult role models, but as an adult he wanted to be one. “When I grew up I said that I actually was going to create this kind of fame, which I’ve created here,” he says. 

Though he grew up in Daly City, his parents sent him to a historically Japanese elementary school in San Francisco’s Japantown. He had friends there, but only saw them during the school day. “So I lived in Daly City my whole life but I didn’t really know too many people except for my neighbors in my neighborhood,” he says.

Then, in seventh grade, he transferred to a Daly City school, and, as he puts it, went from being a shy chubby kid to a popular chubby kid. When Classic opened in 1986, he was one of the first kids through the door. He started taking his little sister there every day after school, and then just never stopped. His confidence increased, and he credits the positive changes in his life to Daly City and Classic. As an adult he wanted to give back to that community – to create a place where kids, and adults, could feel safe and at home.

So with the blessing and support of the deVincenzi family, which owns Classic, Keith O started his campaign to build community at the bowling alley. Annual “Keith O Kids Days” have free bowling, prize and gift giveaways, and special Bay Area guests like rapper San Quinn, or DJs like KMEL’s Scotty Fox. World-famous DJ Qbert of the Invisibl Scratch Pikls, who is also from Daly City, has donated his skills to Classic too. 

“This guy charges thousands of dollars to scratch for two minutes. He DJ’d for the kids for like two hours,” Keith O says.

In addition to these Keith O Kids Days, the bowling center also holds fundraisers for causes ranging from tsunami relief to medical care for Bryan Stow, the Giants fan beaten into a coma at Dodgers Stadium last year. Recently, it hosted the city’s first Asian American cultural celebration, which doubled as a celebration of Daly City’s centennial year. There’s even a monthly Zumba class inside the KO Sports Bar and Lounge. A diverse range of people show up for these events, from Daly City Council members to local school children.

These days there are more and more regulars, drawn in by the music and the friendly vibe. Kristina Sonsip is here with her boyfriend for their weekly bowling date. “I used to be the one that would like to go out to bars and lounge and everything,” she says. “But with the fact that I’ve gotten more into bowling, I enjoy coming here and not only bowling but hanging out at the bar and listening to music.”

At 2:20am, 10 minutes until close, a few lanes still haven’t finished their games. An announcement comes over the speakers: “Lanes 49 and 50, you guys need to bowl a little bit faster.” Bowlers are bringing their shoes back to the counter, looking happy and tired. Some are still tipsy, and their friends help them out into the cool air outside.

Out front, the parking lot is slowly emptying out. Stars shine overhead and the lights of the towers on San Bruno Mountain are just barely visible.  Keith O is still inside the bowling alley. He’ll be back here again in less than six hours for a kids’ tournament tomorrow morning, keeping the place open for the next Keith O.