When Charles Porter was growing up in Oakland in the 1950s, he remembers the Golden Gate Recreation Center as the focal point for kids in the neighborhood. After school got out at Golden Gate Elementary, kids would wander over next door to the center, where they’d play basketball or baseball for hours, work on art projects, or just play on the swing sets and monkey bars.
“I learned to dunk here, with a sock, because my hands were too small to palm a basketball,” said Porter, 68, as he stood on the courts on a cool, weekday morning. “Then I eventually used a volleyball, and finally, the whole thing.”
Porter remembers NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell from the Boston Celtics visiting those same rec center courts when he was a kid and giving a lesson. Porter still can hardly believe that happened. “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” he said.
But over the course of its 60 years, the rec center has slowly deteriorated. Volunteers have put sand in the tot lot and done some indoor painting, but otherwise little improvement work has been done over the past several decades. When the neighborhood crime prevention council (NCPC) meets in the auditorium during the winter, termites drop from the ceiling and hit people.
“About this time of year, February and March, they start to swarm, the termites do,” said Larry Benson, the president of the Golden Gate NCPC. “And they come down and hit people in the faces. Nobody wants to come to that.”
But now the rec center facilities are close to receiving a dramatic and much-needed upgrade. With $8 million in grant money from two different sources tantalizingly close, neighbors like Benson and Porter hope to completely transform the rec center. The building, which now only has an office, auditorium, computer lab and kitchen, would be expanded to include a gymnasium, more meeting rooms, and a stage for indoor performances with doors that open up to an amphitheater for outdoor performances.
The group has already secured a little more than $3 million from money controlled by the city. Last week, the Oakland City Council approved the reallocation of a $3.3 million grant from the East Bay Regional Park District Local Grant Program from Bushrod Park Soccer Field to the Golden Gate Recreation Center for an expansion and improvement project. The Bushrod soccer field project, which was agreed to in 2008, fell through because the city and Oakland Unified School District couldn’t reach an agreement on the scope of the project, and according to a report from the city administrator’s office, the OUSD now has other objectives for the site.
The Golden Gate district neighbors have also applied for a $5 million grant from the state for rec center improvements. The money would come from Proposition 84, a 2006 state bond initiative which made more than $400 million available for park and recreation center improvements. The group expects to hear back soon.
Porter has been involved with efforts to improve the neighborhood for decades, and was part of a recent successful effort to get medians installed on the main thoroughfare through the neighborhood, San Pablo Avenue. He and other neighbors have been working over the years to improve the rec center, which is primarily used as an after-school center for kids next door at Berkeley Maynard Academy charter school (formerly Golden Gate Elementary) as well as neighborhood meetings and community classes, like line dancing for seniors. Over the past decade, a barrier to protect the tot lot was installed after a car jumped the fence, and lights were installed on the path that connects the school and rec center.
Benson said that for the next round of major improvements, neighbors were asked what sort of changes they wanted, and after some “pie in the sky” ideas were rejected (like a swimming pool), a plan that included the gymnasium and outdoor amphitheater were the ideas that resonated the most. An architect drew up some plans, which were part of the application for the state funding grant.
Benson said any improvements to the facility would go a long way. “All there is now is just one big room,” Benson said. “That’s not enough, especially when the kids are coming afterward to do homework. Some kids need quiet time to do homework and other kids want to play.”
Porter thinks the rec center has the potential to completely transform the neighborhood. He has seen the area slowly improve in recent years, with crime slowly going down and an influx of young people interested in helping. Porter said he would like the neighborhood to “return to what it was like when [he] was a kid.” The rec center is giving him hope that it can happen.
“With the rec center, when you look at those plans, you can see we’re almost there,” he said. “It’s going to look nice, really, really nice. And then I can rest.”