Saturday, September 1, 2012

I'm Not Crying Over a Building, Am I?

Would you believe me if I told you that this vacant lot pictured below used to be the "hub of the community"? 

Photo by Rich Hall.

It's true.  What is now a criss-cross of concrete and a mesh of metal fencing used to be the location of a vibrant community center in the heart of a busy neighborhood. Granted, it was never anything fancy, simply an old appliance warehouse the City converted in 1994 into a 7,000 square foot center for homework tutoring, boxing, and summer camp - a place for teens to hang out, to find their way, to stay out of trouble.  Neighborhood kids called it their second home. Teens with gang tattoos boxed out their anger in the ring instead of taking it to the streets.  Younger brothers joined youth clubs instead of following their big bro's footsteps into the local gang.  Five year olds learned to read and add 2 and 2 and share a snack. Ten year olds tore around the place like they owned it, while staff yelled "Walk!" over the hum of fans and timing bells and giggling junior highers.  Girls danced in fancy floral dresses, tapping their feet and spinning to the music of their heritage in a performance that won them numerous awards.  From 1994 until 2006, the Center was the place that kids went to find out what made them special.
Now an empty lot sits where this hub of the community used to be.  Not even one brick remains.
Thankfully, the Center didn't go "out of business."  Not even close.  In 2006, a brand new Center was opened just a few blocks east of this location.  The new place is just as vibrant as the old, if not more so.  While the new Center filled and grew over the last six years, the old Center sat down the street and around the corner like a lonely friend - empty and quiet.  There was a martial arts museum in it for awhile.  Soon it was used as a City construction office for the new state-of-the-art library being built down the street (The big light brown building in the distance in the above photo.)  Instead of kids and backpacks and snacks and soccer balls, the old center filled up with engineers, surveyors, maps and plans. 
Then one day about a month ago, I looked over and it was gone.
Nothing left.
Just the lot you see above.
And I cried.
I was on the way to the new Center to meet with a colleague of mine.  Someone who, like me, had been a part of the Center for nearly 15 years years.  She came to the Center as a recreation leader in 1996 and I came in as director in 1998.  We worked together to build, grow and then eventually move the Center to its new location.  She is now the summer and after-school program coordinator at the new site.  Even though I don't directly supervise her anymore, she asked me to be her leadership mentor and so we meet weekly to go through various leadership books and discuss our challenges and goals.  It's nice to still be able to connect regularly.  We went through a lot at the old Center - no air conditioning in summer, the leaky roof in winter, the year round gang members and pregnant teens who broke our hearts with their stories of abuse and neglect.  We put band-aids on ow-ies, passed out Christmas presents, put away more tables and chairs than we can count, and taught each other how to speak another language.  We have so many inside jokes and stories that we are practically family.
I got to the Center still a little misty eyed and was glad that I was meeting with my colleague.
As soon as we sat down to meet, I said:  "Did you see the old Center?  It's gone!"
"Yeah, I noticed that the other day."  She replied.  "I went down there with a few kids and staff from the old days and we had a little goodbye ceremony.  We found a piece of one of the old bricks from the Center that was laying around.  We brought it back here to the new place and buried it out back."
I started to cry again.
She just looked at me and her eyes watered too.
"I feel so stupid crying over a building!"  I wiped away my tears forcefully and shuffled in my bag for a tissue.  "But there is just something special about that place and to see it gone, it just kind of was like, wow, it's all gone.  Just like that."
"Don't feel stupid, I cried, too."  She said.  "I had my moment for sure."
"We just spent so much time there, you know?  Wow, so many memories.  But I don't have to tell you that.  You know.  You understand why I'm crying."  I dabbed at my tears carefully and tried not to smear my makeup.
She gave me a knowing, strained smile and then looked out her office window.  I took a deep breath to compose myself.
"Anyway, where were we in this book?"  I got out my notes and the leadership book from our last meeting.

Photo by Rich Hall.
As I drove away later that day, I went by the old Center site again.  As I passed, I saw the "No Trespassing" sign on the fence that enclosed the empty lot. I laughed through my tears as I thought of how the signs changed from "Come in!" to "Go away or else!" And how quickly it all seemed to happen! Poof!  There one minute, gone the next.   Tears began to fall again.  I was starting to feel silly for being such a big baby.
Why am I so sad - nostalgic - pensive - pained -- OVER A BUILDING??!! 
The building was a total piece of crap!  The city poured money into it to make it tolerable, but even then it was tough to program.  The outside was brick and corrugated metal which meant no insulation.  The roof was a sprayed-on foam rubber product that leaked better than it sealed.  The walls were chipped cinder blocks in some parts, white, scuffed dry-wall in others.  The windows didn't open and were tinted for safety.  There were only two bathrooms.  One office-slash breakroom- slash meeting room. The rest of the building was one big open room divided up by curtains and partitions used to make cubicles.  Picture August, 250 kids running around and no air conditioning, and only two bathrooms.  I had a few summers like that.
But I loved it.
Because it wasn't about the building.
It was about the people.
About lives changed for the better.  Curious, wide-eyed kids set on a new path.  Tattooed teens heading in a new direction. The Center was about hope and help and getting there each day so you could share, belong, matter and do something that mattered.  It was where you learned something new - a new song, a new language, a new skill, a new friend.  When life went wrong or something from your past reared its ugly head - you could cry on the shoulder of someone who gave a damn.  And I'm not just talking about the kids.  Staff, parents, volunteers, community members - all came here for the same reason.  They said you could literally "feel" the love when you walked in the place.  We were all in this together.  Everyone could tell.  Everyone wanted to be a part of it and it was some of the best years of my life.
The building is gone now.  All that's left is an empty parking lot full of uneven pavement and weeds, but I know only the building is gone.  Not the impact.  There are a million metaphors for this, most reduced to trite cliches, but they really are true - ripples in a pond, setting the ball in motion, planting a seed...
In other words - You can tear down the building, but not the legacy of love.  That lives on.
And that's something that will always bring me to tears.

Photo by Rich Hall.

Hope A. Horner. 2012
Twitter:  Hope Note
Special thanks to Rich Hall for the scenic photos used in this blog.

1 comment: