By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Your next chance to celebrate West Seattle’s history – with an eye toward the future – is Sunday, at Youngstown 100, the party in honor of the centennial of Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, the historic former school building at 4408 Delridge Way SW.
What was Youngstown School in 1917 and became Cooper School in 1939 is by no means a relic from the past. Today, it pulses with creativity and promise, from the artist live/work studios up top, to the classrooms, performance areas, and offices below.
But its future was in doubt, not so long ago.
Youngstown is owned and managed by the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association. So for a look back at this part of the historic schoolhouse’s history, as the 100th-birthday party approaches, we sat down for a conversation with DNDA co-founder Paul Fischburg.
After a decade with DNDA, he left 11 years ago, as reported here. He’s currently on the faculty at Chief Sealth International High School, teaching global leadership and – fittingly for the topic of our conversation – history.
The school had already been mothballed for years when Fischburg and other community members joined forces to launch DNDA, despite its own history including having been the first Seattle school with an African-American teacher, Thelma Dewitty, who started at Cooper School in 1947; Youngstown’s theater is named for her now. Back in the mid-’90s, Fischburg recalls, “The (school) district owned it but had no plan – people were looking at that, saying we should form an organization to redo the school. That was in a way one of the generators of DNDA, but it took many years before the organization was ready to take on a project that big.”
The organization’s roots were in what Fischburg calls “a sort of series of serendipitous comings-together.” He was moving into the neighborhood and working with a group to create co-housing. The city was doing neighborhood planning; Delridge was not a potential “urban village” but did have money allocated for a neighborhood plan. And there was a lot to plan for: “Of all the vacant property in the whole city, maybe two-thirds of it was in Delridge at the time …but developers were not circling.” (Yet.)
A group of community development corporations had formed in Seattle, though, nonprofits created “to spearhead affordable housing, economic development, etc.” They had a grant; Delridge had the potential, and a group of people came together to form a Local Initiative Support Corporation, an “intermediary for CDCs and CDC money,” with a meeting at the Delridge Community Center including city reps. (Fischburg takes care to credit those who were part of getting DNDA going – names he mentions include Ron Angeles, Bonita Blake, Barbara Boe, Steve Daschle, Larry Kingen, Pablo Lambinicio, Vivian McLean, Alan Stowers, Willy Williams.)
At one point at the community-center meeting, he recalls, a suggestion was made for a show of hands from those “here to help” and from those “here to do.” Almost everyone was from the former category, so the others deduced, “this has to come from the neighborhood.” At the time, Fischburg worked at nonprofit housing provider Capitol Hill Housing; he quit that job and started meeting with community leaders and others in the neighborhood.
That was summer of 1996; by fall, the new entity had nonprofit status and was working on neighborhood planning, as well as initiatives like a bicycle-repair project – people donated used bikes, youth were trained in repairs. “We were just trying to bring the community together.” And that took many forms.
“That old boarded-up school building came up (in conversation) all the time,” as did the idea that DNDA should do something about it. With the help of grant money, they did an architectural study of the building, including a seismic study and drawings of possibilities. “We floated three different ideas – one was like McMenamins, with a brewpub, movie theater, inn … one was an arts and cultural center … one was (entirely) affordable housing. There was support for all three but significant opposition as well to the McMenamins type – having alcohol in the neighborhood at the time seemed like a bad idea.” Converting the building to all housing wasn’t a popular idea either, he says. But the arts/cultural center concept “had a lot of support, and no opposition, so we said, ‘let’s go talk to the school district and try to negotiate purchasing the building’.”
With the help of then-Department of Neighborhoods director Jim Diers, a meeting was called with the district to pitch the idea. And it went over well. Before long, Fischburg says, they had a purchase agreement to buy the old school within three years, as long as they met certain marks within that time.
And again, Fischburg marvels at how the process went: “I’ve been involved in a lot of visionary stuff – if you come through with a torn and tattered version of your vision,” that’s almost to be expected, “but this kept getting better and better. It’s kind of the coolest thing I was ever involved in.”
The getting-better-and-better included getting the building listed on the National Historic Register, which opened the door to access to tax credits “which attracted serious investors.” And getting Arts Corps to move its headquarters there from “a little house they were renting in Madrona,” with teaching artists in various schools – that was a major step toward the cultural/arts mission of Youngstown. “Arts Crps was instrumental in strengthening the vision.”
For the underpinning, the building was set up as a “two-unit condominium – all the housing is one, the cultural center and arts (space) is the other. … We were able to create a space that had no mortgage.” The building has anchor tenants based there who pay rent, rentable space for classes and performances, and the housing upstairs. “It came together really beautifully as a concept that fit into the building beautifully … that the funders loved, the community loved.”
With the caveat that he hasn’t been involved in a decade, Fischburg nonetheless lauds the result: “A lot of people have looked to it as a model. … Delridge has a lot of shared geography but (its people) rarely come together … we saw Youngstown as a place where that could happen … (where) all the different parts of the community could come together, play and dialogue and participate, support each other.”
Getting the building ready to open was an adventure all its own, Fischburg reminisces – volunteers were marshaled to go in and deal with a lot of stuff the school district had stored in there. Cooper School alumni were contacted, and invited to visit. They told stories, revisited lockers, recorded their stories.
The building has again served as a school, with classes for the Interagency Academy. And so much else is taught. “I think about all the things happening in there!” Fischburg says, adding, “We never imagined there’d be kids living there, but there are a bunch of kids who’ve grown up” at Youngstown.
Right now, in fact, DNDA tells us, there are 7 kids among the 52 people living in Youngstown’s 36 live/work studios.
(Sister the cat, photographed during the artists’ open house in 2012)
Having that kind of housing available allows the artists to devote more time and energy to their work, Fischburg notes. And the other projects that DNDA has developed are a boon to local nonprofits as well as low-income residents. As detailed here:
*Croft Place Townhomes
*One Community Commons
*West Seattle Food Bank & Community Resource Center
*Vivian McLean Place
DNDA also bought and refurbished three small apartment buildings – Centerwood, Delridge Heights, Holden Manor. (All its properties are mapped here.)
While DNDA has not added to its property portfolio in some years, it is by no means in a holding pattern, nor is Youngstown. We checked with DNDA’s current executive director David Bestock for more on that. Bestock first explained that DNDA recently updated its mission:
“Integrating art, nature, and neighborhood to build and sustain a dynamic Delridge.”
There’s a lot of synergy in that: “Our focus is a neighborhood-wide approach to livability and affordability, with a focus on social, racial, and environmental justice. We are actively working across sectors to provide maximum public benefit. Residents from our 7 affordable housing properties can come to participate in programs at Youngstown, and can join DNDA’s Nature Consortium to preserve the health of our local parks.”
The community beyond that has opportunities for involvement: “Our Arts In Nature Festival celebrates the arts, environment, and multicultural expression. Students from K-8 STEM walk to our Wetlands project to engage in hands-on environmental education. . We are truly providing a network of opportunities and support for our neighbors, and encouraging cross-cultural dialogue, civic engagement, and creative expression. It’s a beautiful thing.”
And as for the building whose centennial will be celebrated at Sunday afternoon’s party?
The Youngstown building is holding strong at 100 years, though it certainly needs some TLC, and ongoing maintenance of a well used 100-year-old building is quite expensive. The current major needs include structural supports where there is active foundation settling at the South end of the building (where our primary public rental spaces are), as the foundation sits on soil that has been shifting due to groundwater running under the building. There is construction happening NOW to install French drains along the back of the building to improve drainage from the hillside that will hopefully mitigate the amount of water flowing under the building that has been causing the noticeable settling. Once we are able to lessen the flow of water, we plan to install pin piles to support the foundation directly, and once that’s done we plan to convert our kitchen into a commercial kitchen, and make improvements in our Theater to make it an even more dynamic and engaging space. Further, we are looking to repair and beautify the stucco wall that fronts the building on Delridge, and to repaint our historic windows, which will deteriorate without proper care. Replacing the historic windows would cost ~$1.5M, so we’re looking to avoid that with proper maintenance J. There are many, ongoing needs here, and we work hard to find a balance between providing affordable space, and being able to fund needed maintenance and improvements.
Youngstown is a rare and special place. A hub of community connection, education, and celebration. We provide a safe space for people to land and to learn, and we specifically seek to engage low-income families, youth of color, the LGBTQ community, and others that often struggle to find support elsewhere. It is a vital community resource that deserves broad based community support. There is magic here. If you’ve ever been to Youngstown, you’ve probably felt it. If you have not yet been, please join us on Sunday to discover the incredible gem that is the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center. Let’s thrive together.
2-5 pm Sunday. Admission is free; donations welcome; registration encouraged.