Walk the pathway from Grand Avenue past Children’s Fairyland, follow the sound of birds in the trees along Bellevue Avenue and keep going, and you’ll eventually find your way to a squat, Spanish-tiled building with wooden pillars that houses one of the oldest municipal lawn bowling clubs in the country.
The Oakland Lawn Bowling Club, established in 1903, is a social haven for an array of people, including many who’ve discovered its joys for the first time during the pandemic. Two meticulously maintained bowling greens stretch out in front of the clubhouse. The lawns fill up on Wednesday nights with people eager to spend time rolling away the middle of the week. Veteran members, occasional enthusiasts, first-time bowlers, and roommates along for the ride all compete in four-week leagues hosted by the club.
The rules of the game: Players start by rolling a small white ball called a “jack” down the green. Opponents then take turns rolling balls (called “bowls”) that are slightly lopsided (or “biased”) as close to the jack as they can get. The suspense of the game comes from attempting to curve around opponents’ bowls that have already been thrown, or knock them out of play completely. In singles and pairs games, each player rolls four bowls per round (or “end”) and whoever is closest to the jack wins that end. The closest player gets a point for each ball that is closer to the jack than the opponent’s closest ball, with the first to 21 winning the game.
A breeze fills the open space over the greens, a calm reminder to explore the grounds or go inside the clubhouse and grab a tea or beer. The players are a mosaic of varying skill levels, ages, occupations, and backgrounds. But at the OLBC, there is a bond to be found amongst those gathered to compete.
The club hosts leagues on Wednesday evenings for members and casual players alike. Last Wednesday was the final round of the league, where teams with names like “The Long Arm of the Lawn,” “Lawn Dykes,” and “MK Ultra” faced off for the glory of the top spot.
One league player recalled never having known about the clubhouse or OLBC until they attended an Oaklandish party hosted on the premises a decade ago. Another couple spoke of biking past the club where a member of their synagogue happened to be bowling. He waved them down as they passed through Lake Merritt and the pair have been regulars ever since.
While many have spent their whole lives in the 510, the club boasts members and participants from every corner of the country. Away from the greens, inside the clubhouse, the walls hold frames displaying hundreds of pins of bowling clubs from Canada to Zimbabwe to New Zealand. Members take pride in the unspoken open-door policy within the lawn bowling community at large. Whenever they travel, it’s common practice for some bowlers to check in with the local club and stop by for a game.
Unlike several other bowling clubs in the Bay Area, upkeep of the Oakland club falls exclusively to its members, who pitch in to dethatch, verticut, laser-level, reseed, roll, and mow with the aim of keeping the greens at a tidy height of one-eighth of an inch. Lake Merritt is the first wildlife refuge in North America, so even if the club was inclined to use pesticides, they would be breaking the law by doing so.
The club splurged thousands of dollars on professional maintenance of its greens in early 2020, only to see them fall quickly into disarray after the pandemic began in March. While membership dipped to about 40 during the worst days of the lockdown, the club is now back to its pre-pandemic numbers, with 85.
“I wanna keep lawn bowling as long as I’m kicking,” said Brett Link, president of the Oakland club, before jokingly nominating his friend Morgan Zinger to run for the position next year. Zinger and Link both expressed a hope that the club will continue to grow in numbers and scope, tapping into more corners of the community and pulling in new members who are interested in helping to make decisions about the club’s future.
After the Wednesday league finished and the night wound down, after the awards ceremony—prizes included magnetic poetry, window stickers, a can of beans— the players said their goodbyes and filed out into the Oakland evening air.
Welcoming new players to lawn bowling
Over the years, OLBC members have led hundreds of trainings on the sport, with class sizes ranging from 12 to 150, while lessons for four people or fewer are free. The day after the Wednesday-night league, 28 middle schoolers from nearby St. Paul’s made their way across Grand Avenue and into a circle in front of the clubhouse, leaving their backpacks beneath one of the tile mosaics. The kids were met by club members Ian Gonzer and Stephen Steiner, their volunteer instructors for the day. A retired general practice lawyer, Steiner, or “Shmoo” to his friends, began the lesson with a bit of history about the sport, weaving in trivia questions to keep the kids engaged.
They made their way to a classroom inside the clubhouse to learn the basics of the game, where Gonzer handed out bowls for the kids to pass around, each one feeling the weight and subtle oval shape before passing it along. Steiner demonstrated the basic mechanics of the roll: stoop, step, deliver. Again: stoop, step, deliver. The kids watched, many already restless, seemingly ready to be out on the greens or at least back outside. Steiner felt the pressure shift and hurried to the end of his lesson, announcing, “Now, pick your teams!” A few kids jumped up to lock in their best buds. Others took their time and then everyone tumbled outside.
The chaperones hung out in front of the clubhouse and on the greens, quietly minding the beginning of play. Tony Bald, a science teacher at St. Paul’s, spoke from behind his cap and shades about just how important days like these have been for the kids he teaches. Bald recalled the beginning of lockdown when everything froze. But the school managed to move some activities outside, with students mingling near the clubhouse, or walking over to Children’s Fairyland for a chemistry lesson with Mr. Bald in Cinderella’s Party Area.
On paper, Zarka Popovic may be the head coach for the Oakland club (and the regional Pacific Intermountain Division), but around the club she seems to be regarded as the glue of the organization, the person to talk to.
“I’m not retired, I work full time,” Popovic explained. “We have literally under 10 people that are retired in our membership. The bulk of them are in their mid-20s to late-40s. I’m on the older side. We also have some people in their 50s and early-60s. And then we have people, the retirees, that are in their mid-to-late-60s, 70s, and 80s.”
Popovic herself is no stranger to heading up operations. Having earned her master’s in public administration, she’s held positions as a city manager and assistant county manager, and is currently a facilities and security director for Escuela Bilingüe Internacional’s two East Bay school campuses.
She recalled a period of transition nearly a decade ago when the future of the club was uncertain. Membership had dropped to barely 20, with active participants even lower. The club was preparing to close up and hand the keys back to the city, officially ending the club’s lease of the clubhouse it’s called home for nearly a century.
Enter Popovic and her sister Ratka Mira Popovic, who joined the club and promptly asked to see its books. The two decided they weren’t ready to let this Oakland staple die, and headed up an effort to turn the club around. Nearly a decade later, the club is a thriving participant in the lawn bowling world and a cherished part of Lake Merritt culture.
“We just got all our friends involved, and then they got some of their friends involved,” said Zarka Popovic. “And then my sister and a guy named Lucien started the leagues together. And now Morgan runs the leagues. So, you know, it was through certain people just taking the helm and saying, yeah, I’ll do this.”
Maintaining a historic clubhouse and a perfect lawn
To revive the club, the bright-eyed crew had to learn all the ins-and-outs of maintaining the organization as well as the greens and clubhouse itself, with help from the city having slowed to a trickle. Built in 1926, the clubhouse itself remains accessible to every member who has their own key. But they’ve had their fair share of vandals in recent months. The club has spent $2,000 on glass repairs this year alone.
Much of the leadership and club mainstays voice an excitement for the future of the club. The sport itself allows for an even playing field that’s inclusive of people with a range of physical capabilities. The club has hosted players with disabilities, who can use adaptive tools to roll the ball down the field. Zarka is hopeful that outreach and free lessons will continue to add to the diversity of age, experience, and background they are already known for.
Still, members of the Oakland club remarked on the stark difference in municipal assistance they receive compared to their peers across the bay in San Francisco, whose club was formed in 1901, making it the first municipal lawn bowling club in California. The Oakland Clubhouse itself is registered as a historic landmark, they noted, but the club doesn’t always feel like that status is enough to compel the city to help them maintain it.
“Even though it’s on the city’s landmark status, it’s not a high priority for them,” remarked Popovic.
With repairs estimated to cost $1.2 million, Popovic is looking for ways to address what needs to be worked on with as little cost as possible. She estimates that if they manage to do some creative enlisting of contractors and volunteers, they could fix the bulk of what they need for about $100,000.
While they could always use more help, club leaders are hopeful. New members are finding the club all the time, whether it be through friends or proximity (when she spoke with The Oaklandside, Popovic was looking for a Cantonese interpreter to assist a group from a retirement community across the lake), and club leaders are enthusiastic about diversifying their membership.
“I believe every club should be a reflection of the city that it’s in,” said Popovic.
Coming up on a decade since the club was brought back from the brink, Popovic and other club members hope to make that a piece of their history, too.