Noe Valley Voice September 1999

Exploring the 'Other Stuff' at Yerba Buena Gardens

By Janis Cooke Newman

A pterodactyl is grabbing my bowling pins. It flies through the air, neatly depositing the 3 and 9 pin into a large nest. My son Alex and I watch as the prehistoric bird squawks to congratulate me on making the spare, and the screen switches back to an electronic scorecard indicating that it's now Alex's turn to bowl.

We're at the Yerba Buena Bowling Center at Yerba Buena Gardens, a complex that includes an ice skating rink, a restored carousel, a children's playground, and the new Zeum Art & Technology Center. All of these are what I've come to think of as "the other stuff at Yerba Buena," mostly because Sony's flashy new Metreon, that cross between the movie Blade Runner and a theme park, gets all the press.

So today, Alex and I have come to see what else there is to do at Yerba Buena -- located just a few blocks from the J-Church's Powell Street Station.

After making another spare, I decide that my favorite thing about the Bowling Center is the "bumpers." There's a little switch on every lane that replaces your gutters with a nice soft bumper that sends your ball straight into the number 1 pin. It's there for the kids, but as someone who has never bowled anything higher than a 63, I think it's the coolest thing since those little jets of air that dry off your fingers.

Alex's favorite thing is the video screen, which keeps score, tells you whose turn it is, and rewards you with little cartoons like the pterodactyl when you make a strike or a spare. Every time Alex tosses his special 6-pound kid's ball down the lane, he runs back to see if he's going to get the exploding bowling pin or the character that gets knocked out in the boxing ring.

Yerba Buena Bowling's atmosphere is pretty different from the bowling alleys my father took me to as a kid -- adult places filled with cigarette smoke, half-empty cups of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and fat guys in shirts with their names embroidered in cursive script over their pockets. At Yerba Buena, there are colorful pictures of hot-air balloons painted on the walls and tiny two-toned bowling shoes for 3-year-olds.

Thanks to the bumpers, Alex beats my former top tally, and I bowl a staggering 116. Picking up the printout of our score sheet, we walk across the courtyard to the ice skating rink.

The rink is in a glass-sided building, and as the speakers crank out Lynyrd Skynard Live, we skate past views of the jukebox Marriott Hotel and the big striped frisbee on the Museum of Modern Art. In the center of the rink, a burly man who looks as if he operates earth-moving equipment during the week is executing a series of graceful turns, delicately crossing his hands over his chest.

"Make believe your toes don't like each other," he tells Alex, who is skating pigeon-toed. We glide by little girls in skating skirts practicing their jumps and couples clutching each other's hands just to stay upright, coming around just in time to hear the man offer the same advice to a 2-year-old who is being dragged around the rink by his parents.

After we turn in our plastic skates, Alex runs outside to the rooftop playground, which has a cushioned surface that feels like walking on a stack of Dr. Scholl's insoles. The main attraction here is a tall climbing structure with two enormous silver tube slides, which spit children out onto cushions like prizes from a gumball machine.

Across from the slides, I check out a multistoried sandbox with a spouting lion fountain in the center and an assortment of plastic buckets, shovels, and turtle and fish molds. Around the edges of the sandbox, a group of older Asian men have brought their pet parakeets out for an airing. The men sit with the caged birds at their feet, watching their grandchildren dig moats for sandcastles.

I've read that there is a maze of hedges here, and the next time Alex shoots out of the tube slide, I grab him and we head off to find it. I'm thinking Alice in Wonderland and imagine we'll lose our way in narrow, green-tinted alleys. But I've forgotten that the children's garden has only been open a couple of months. "Why are we doing this?" Alex asks, as he rushes through the maze surrounded by hedges that barely come up to his waist.

Zeum is our next stop, the funnel-shaped building that looks like a cartoon version of the Guggenheim in New York. Billed as San Francisco's art and technology center for ages 8 to 18, it's a little old for Alex, but he likes it anyway. We stop at the animation studio, where kids are making their own versions of Wallace and Grommet out of clay and shooting them against backdrops of mountains and skyscrapers. Then we climb up and slide down a giant carton of Horizon Organic Milk.

Outside, we visit the restored carousel that for nearly 60 years was part of Playland at the Beach, San Francisco's famed amusement park near the Cliff House. Built in 1906, the carousel now spins beneath a faceted glass roof that makes the ponies with real horsehair tails sparkle like colored jewels.

"I want the horse with the gun," Alex shouts, climbing onto a stallion that has a rifle painted beneath its saddle. As the carousel turns, he pretends to shoot the camels in front of him, and I realize that all those hours spent watching Mr. Rogers feed fish are lost on a 4-year-old with a testosterone rush.

"What was your favorite thing?" I ask Alex, as we head back to the streetcar.

He thinks a minute, waving his
bowling score at the people on Market Street.

"All of it," he says, proving there is life after Metreon.

The ABC's of YBC

The Yerba Buena Bowling Center, at Fourth and Folsom streets, is open Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. until midnight. Adult prices are $3.50 per game; kids under 12 play for $2 a game. Shoe rental is $2 a pair. The 12 lanes can fill up on weekends, so it's best to reserve a lane by calling 415-777-3726.

The Yerba Buena Ice Skating Rink, located at 750 Folsom St., on the rooftop of Moscone Center, is open for public skating Monday through Friday from 1 to 5 p.m. On weekends, public skating is from 1 to 2:30 p.m. and from 3:30 to 5 p.m. There's evening skating starting at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Rates are $6 for adults, $4.50 for children 12 and under. Skate rental is $2.50. Note: It's chilly inside the rink, so bring something warm to wear. Call 415-777-3727 for the scoop.

Zeum, the museum at Yerba Buena Gardens (Fourth and Howard), is open Wednesday through Friday, noon to 6 p.m.; and weekends, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for kids 5 to 18. You can find out more by calling 415-777-2800 or logging on to Zeum's web site at

The glass-enclosed Playland Carousel, also in Yerba Buena Gardens at Fourth and Howard, operates Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. It's $1 per ride on the merry-go-round.

Noe Kids is a column about where to go and what to do with your kids. It's written by Janis Cooke Newman, with advice from her son, Alex, and husband, Ken. But we'd also like some tips from you. If there's a topic, activity, or outing you'd like to see covered in Noe Kids, please e-mail Janis at, or write to us at the Noe Valley Voice, 1021 Sanchez St., San Francisco, CA 94114.