Seattle to the World: Youngstown Cultural Arts Center

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A Resource By The Community, For the Community

By Kelly Igoe

The story:
Seattleites have grown accustomed to watching early- to mid-20th-century homes torn down in their neighborhoods to make way for density housing. In the name of smart growth, we swallow the loss of familiar facades and look to the future. But public buildings with a communal spirit and collective memory are harder to lose. Schoolhouses and churches on the chopping block can generate a public outcry that inspires positive alternatives for communities. The Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in West Seattle is a perfect example.

The Center is a project of the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association (DNDA), a private nonprofit dedicated to improving life for residents of neighborhoods spooled along Delridge Way. The stately brick schoolhouse was decommissioned in 1989, after serving students in the area since 1917. (The original schoolhouse was wooden and opened in 1906.) The building languished as an over-sized storehouse for nearly 10 years before the DNDA resolved to rescue it. They initiated a seven-year development process, which raised funds for construction and included extensive neighborhood canvassing to find out what residents felt would revitalize their community. The answer: an arts education center with affordable live/work space for artists. And that is what the DNDA has provided.

In February 2006, tenants moved into the newly renovated, multi-disciplinary schoolhouse. The first floor houses offices for seven organizations, many youth-focused. A performance space and a place for film screenings bring many guests from beyond Delridge. Most weekday programming targets middle- and high-school students; Classes and gatherings for adults occur in the evenings. The top two floors are devoted to low-income live/work space for artists. The result is a thrumming hive for creative expression and inclusion.

“We get 1,000 visitors to Youngstown a week,” says the building’s director, Randy Engstrom. Since opening the doors in 2006, the staff has grown from three people to 14, and the budget has tripled. But success at Youngstown is gauged more personally. Randy considers the relationships he has shared and observed. “Watching kids teetering on the edge of expulsion turn into real leaders is one measure of success. Remaining in a state of expansion is another.”

Why it’s worldchanging:
Youngstown is a living creature, one that sees no limit to the service it can provide. The Center is poised to expand its role in the Delridge community and Seattle at large. Innovative, youth-focused organizations gathered here make it an inspiring place for students penned in by traditional schooling and standardized tests. Artists living in the upper stories have the option to be involved in the Center’s programming and outreach efforts, but the choice is theirs. What once was a building destined for demolition has become a haven of art, connection, service, recreation and learning.

Perhaps most inspiring is that this collective endeavor is a direct response to what the community claimed it wanted. Feedback from renters, partners and tenants fuels Youngstown's evolution, and as a product truly by and for the community, it continues to thrive and to meet the needs of the people it serves. The Youngstown Cultural Art Center is a working model of community engagement at a level that, if practiced everywhere, would fuel pride in our neighborhoods, connections between residents, and the creation of shared resources that can make living densely into a fulfilling, exciting experience.

Kelly Igoe spends a lot of time staring out her kitchen window at the shifting sky. She also writes, rides her bicycle, gardens, studies yoga and sells apple cider at Seattle’s farmers’ markets. Her essays have been published in Rivet Magazine.

Photo credit: Susie Fitzhugh, courtesy of DNDA


This post is part of the series, "Seattle to the World: 100 Best Innovations from the Emerald City."

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