A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Spring 2017

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Youngstown Cultural Arts Center—

Grassroots Vision Manifests as Thriving Neighborhood Hub

 

By Candace Brown

 

 

As traffic rushes along busy Delridge Way in West Seattle, many drivers have no idea that a dominant brick building they pass symbolizes the power of vision, perseverance, and community spirit. A couple of decades ago it was nothing but an old, empty, and boarded up eyesore, a detriment, serving no purpose. Now, the beautifully renovated structure is home to the 18,000 square foot Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, a place vibrant with life since the day it opened in 2006. With an emphasis on serving youth, it offers enriching experiences, warm human connections, education, outreach, social services, housing, and more. The Center’s own website describes it best, as a place “… that incubates and inspires new arts participants, art-makers and organizations from our multicultural, intergenerational communities in order to engage in civic dialogue and meaningful community transformation.”

The surrounding area has always been working class and diverse, with the first non-native residents—many from other states or countries—arriving in 1905. The promise of jobs at a steel mill drew workers to a new settlement called Youngstown, named after Youngstown, Ohio, because of the mill connection. Life was often tough. Workers’ children could not even attend school that first year. In 1906, the mill owners dedicated a room in a mill building to be used for education, and 70 children filled it on the first day it opened. Later, a wooden structure arose where the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center now stands. In 1917, the brick Youngstown School was built to replace the wooden structure, on the same site. In 1929, it gained an addition, and during the 1930s the name changed to the Frank B. Cooper Elementary School. However, that school closed in 1989 and would stand dormant for 16 years until some dedicated and farsighted people turned it into the wonderful asset it is today.

Youngstown Cultural Arts Center’s Director David Bestock shared with Neighborhood Life the inspiring story of how the Center came to be, how it serves, how it sustains itself, and why it is now the beating heart of a still diverse, still working class, but thriving community.

Candace Brown for Neighborhood Life: What forces came into play to save this building during those dark years of its existence and to create the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center?

Bestock: Paul Fischburg was running the Delridge Neighborhood Development Association (DNDA) at the time, and he and a group of community leaders really wanted to see the building become a service to the community. What led to the vision and the opening was something called the "Three Projects, One Community Campaign" that DNDA led. That involved hiring Walsh Construction to do a multi-million dollar renovation on the building. Now, on the ground floor, the Cultural Arts Center houses several non-profit administrative offices as well as spaces available to rent, including our theater, our movement studio, several classrooms, a kitchen, and a recording studio. So we rent those spaces out to the public for classes, workshops, performances, and meetings, as well as running some of our own programming out of those spaces. On the top three floors, it houses Cooper Artist Housing, 36 live/work spaces for artists that are all low-income housing.

YCAC from the north parking lot by Denny Sternstein

 

The Three Projects/One Community Campaign also included two other projects. One was the Croft Place Townhomes, which is down right off Delridge and Holly and includes a collection of townhomes and some beautiful landscaping. We have solar panels there. It’s a certified “green” property and is a really great space for families. In addition to the low-income housing in the townhomes, there’s also a community room and a small computer lab available to residents.

The other project that was part of that campaign was the West Seattle Community Resource Center, which is another mixed-use space and includes the now permanent home of the West Seattle Food Bank, several social services’ offices, a community room, and a low-income housing property called “One Community Commons.” So those three projects were all funded together through this capital campaign. We have a beautiful mosaic here at Youngstown, honoring the many donors. I love the mosaic, and I’m very thankful to all of those folks who made that happen.

So that’s how Youngstown came to be, through the vision of Paul Fischburg, the leadership of founding Youngstown Director Randy Engstrom, and a long list of others affiliated with DNDA leading up to when the center opened on February 26, 2006. DNDA is the non-profit organization. Youngstown is a project of DNDA.

N.L.:  How do you keep this wonderful center going? Where does the money come from to support it?

Bestock: Youngstown is a really unique model in that we are able to sustain ourselves mostly on earned income. We essentially act as commercial landlord to non-profits that have their offices here. We do offer those spaces at below market rates, as part of our mission to make it accessible to non-profits and to build collective community power here in the building. By and large, most of those organizations are youth-serving or arts-based or both. Really, the only exception to that is the West Seattle Tool Library, which is a great community resource, a library where folks can check out tools. There is also a workshop where they run classes and help community members with building projects.

 The participatory music and dance of the Seattle Fandango Project enterained families at Youngstown Thrive, 2014

 

In addition to keeping the lights and heat on, we try to provide cohesion and integrate services as much as possible. Some of these nonprofits are our original tenants. Arts Corps, Nature Consortium, and The Service Board have been here for years. Another tenant is Southwest Interagency Academy, which is an alternative high school, a project of Seattle Public Schools. Interagency serves young people who have been struggling in traditional public school settings. We try to serve those kids however we can, hopefully through the arts and giving them a more rounded education, more opportunities to learn marketable skills, more qualifications so they can enter the work force right out of school or pursue higher education. A lot of what I’m focused on, in terms of our own programming, is serving the kids at Southwest Interagency Academy and figuring out ways to do that that are scalable, so that we can then serve the broader Delridge Community and young people throughout the area.

 Kids' crafts at Thrive 14

 

N.L.: What other sources of income do you have?

Bestock: We balance that with income from our community rentals. We are renting out our activity spaces everyday. Our three most used and most lucrative spaces are our Theater, our Movement Studio, and our South Classroom, which are all set up to be really dynamic. Our South Classroom is 800 square feet and it’s just wide open. It can host movement based classes, painting workshops, grant training sessions, or kid’s birthday parties. All those things can also be held in our Movement Studio and Theater. Then there are even more things that can be held in those spaces like theater performances, music concerts, large group facilitations, etc. The city holds events here too, like training sessions or community meetings. We can accommodate events large and small.

It’s also a great affordable spot for folks to throw a wedding. Some folks who got married here last August just loved it and came back to help support us in our celebration of Youngstown’s eighth birthday, held March 1. We’re a part of their lives now, so that feels really great. We’d love to welcome more weddings here.

N.L.: How important are donations?

Bestock: In addition to the earned income model, we definitely rely on community donations from local businesses and corporations and also from individuals at a more grassroots level. We’re trying to reach back out to the base of donors who helped make the renovation and remodel of Youngstown possible and actively re-engage them. We also want to expand our donor base and work with local businesses as partners to do more programming that serves the community.

Our contributed income right now is probably less than 10% of our earned revenue, and part of that is property management income. DNDA manages seven low-income housing units throughout West Seattle and gets some support from local and city, state, county and federal governments to continue to provide low income housing.

We’re trying to obviously cover our cost so we can keep this wonderful building bustling and keep the doors on their hinges and keep the lights on. Then, we’re trying to raise enough money on top of that so we can run youth programs. We’ve got this great space and there’s a definite need in the community for arts programming for young people.

 Volunteers from local IT company Blucora help paint signs for Youngstown's Open House

 

N.L.: I’m sure it must help kids stay out of trouble.

Bestock: It certainly does, but what we’re trying to do is one step more than that. We’re trying to get them engaged with something they can actually latch onto for years, not just for the these three hours of keeping them off the street, but giving them some tools so that down the road, they can get a leg up. We’ve got a lot of young people of color and from low income backgrounds in this community who already have the odds stacked against them in terms of institutionalized oppression. So giving them that leg up in the world is something I’m personally focused on, and that we’re all focused on, here at Youngstown, and within DNDA. DNDA still has a very broad community focus, so having these youth programs is part of the DNDA mission in terms of building a thriving Delridge Community.

The Cabiri, an aerial arts ensemble offering workshops and performances at Youngstown since 2006, wows the crowd at Youngstown Thrive to help celebrate 8 years.

 

N.L.: How do you gauge your success? Are you getting a lot of kids into these programs? How’s the participation?

Bestock: We’re constantly working to track that better. We’re a very small staff, so tracking all these metrics is secondary to getting people in the door and served and to keep them happy and engaged. Several years ago, when there was a bigger staff and more activity, before the recession had an impact, there were more than 20,000 people coming in and out of Youngstown every year. I don’t know if we’re hitting 20,000 now, but I’m comfortable saying that more than 15,000 are coming in and out our doors over the year.

We do try to track the number of people who are at all of our big events, and that number includes staff and students of organizations and the school here who are here every day of the week in addition to the participants, audience members of theater productions that are here or participants in workshops or classes. So that’s kind of one bigger number and then in terms of our youth programs and the folks served by programs that we manage directly, it’s a much smaller number. We’re a small staff and we don’t have a dedicated program team right now to run programs. I’m doing that as is our events manager here. We’re the two full time staff members at Youngstown. The program metrics are easier to track because the numbers are smaller, and because we’re required to track some of them for grant reporting purposes.

In terms of community impact, we get a lot of positive feedback when we do community-wide events. We did a program last summer that was funded in part by the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative and the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture. We did a summer project called the Delridge Mural Project where we employed young people aged 13-17, who worked with a professional teaching artist we hired, to paint the Department of Transportation’s signal boxes at all the lit intersections on Delridge from Andover down to Henderson. Twelve signal boxes are now painted with marine life themed images. We had tons of great community feedback on the West Seattle Blog and from folks just passing by and those who just really like seeing more colorful art on the streets. It was also a way to engage and pay young people to do work and gain those marketable skills. We plan to do another mural this summer to kind of put a cap on the Delridge Mural Project, a big mural here at Youngstown, on the retaining wall of our parking lot.

 

 

Local youth were paid to work with teaching artists designing and painting traffic signal boxes as part of a program run by Youngstown staff, summer of 2013

 

N.L.: Your website mentions consultation and partnerships? Please explain those programs.

Bestock: When folks come and rent space here, both Caitlin McCown, our events manager, and myself have a background in theater and event production. If someone wants to do an event here, but they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for, we help shape that event. We tell them, “Here are the facilities and equipment we have; here’s how it can be used; here’s how we can staff the event to give you the support you need.” Also, because we are a unique and successful model, people turn to us for advice on how to start this sort of center or ask how it’s working or if certain aspects work better than others. I take some meetings about that sort of thing to help other community groups start and grow and get stronger.

N.L.: I’d like to talk about the live/work spaces. How do you connect with the artists? How do you screen them and how do you decide who gets to live there?

Bestock: Folks who want to live here get on a waiting list, and when there are vacancies the residential manager goes to the list and invites people to come view any open units. They have to jump through a couple of hoops. One is that they have to meet the income regulations that qualify the units as low income. Then there’s an artist panel that they present their portfolio to, to show that they are a working artist. Involvement in the community activity downstairs in the cultural arts center varies. Some people are very involved. Some people rent the space for their own activities; some serve our organization as volunteers and get very hands-on when it comes to the events and programs we’re running. Others just see it as home and don’t get really involved. They just take advantage of very affordable live and work space.

N.L.: How affordable is it?

Bestock: It’s certainly well below market in terms of price per square foot for rental space, and the studios are just “cool.” The second and third floor units in our building are converted from old classrooms, so some of them have the old original wood built-in teacher closets that roll up. They have chalk boards. They have the original windows. The units on the fourth floor were created from the old attic, so the ceilings go from about 6 1/2 feet to almost 18 ft. and have skylights (instead of windows). All of the units have high ceilings and a lot of charm.

N.L.: You must have some challenges. I’d like to hear about those.

Bestock: One of them is trying to fill our spaces during the day, both to help our bottom line and also to keep the energy up here. We’re a community arts and cultural center, so keeping the folks coming and keeping the walls lively here is a constant challenge. Thankfully, it’s a very attractive space and we’re more or less able to just answer the phones and keep rentals coming. But I think just letting people know what sorts of activities we’re doing on a regular basis is a challenge for us, particularly because of how small our staff is. People will drive by all the time and don’t know what’s happening within the walls here. So that, I see, is a challenge for us, simply doing a better job marketing what we’re doing.

It’s an interesting challenge - we can’t just throw a banner up on our main wall because we’re a registered historic landmark. We have to run any external changes by the city before we make any alterations to the building.

Other challenges have to do with the complicated nature of low income housing funding, all of the different funders and the different entities required to make low income housing possible. The accounting that mirrors that is complicated. Finding and retaining folks who understand that, and are willing to do some drudging though complicated accounting, has certainly been a challenge in the past. Our current board is doing an outstanding job of improving the accounting by streamlining some of the internal procedures. That has been the focus for a while, and we’re now also trying to get back out into the community and do the work that DNDA was created to do, which is to get neighbors, the community, and civic leaders more involved and engaged with each other, and improving Delridge.

 

N.L.: What are some ways DNDA projects have impacted lives in this community?

Bestock: DNDA did a lot of work with the Longfellow Creek restoration, which I believe is the longest day lighted creek in Seattle, and created a home for the Delridge branch of the public library, created a permanent home for the West Seattle Food Bank, and created Youngstown, which serves tens of thousands of people each year for arts and cultural activities. So DNDA is really trying to step back into the public forum more than we have been in the last couple of years when not everyone knew DNDA was still active. It was mostly, then, focused on managing the housing it had developed over the previous 10-13 years, accounting for that and figuring out how best to manage it from a board and staff perspective. I think that’s a challenge you’re going to hear about if you’re interviewing someone from any non-profit, particularly one that’s been around long enough to ride out a recession or two.

 Youth depicted the life cycle of salmon and other scenes of marine life, as part of Youngstown's Work Readiness Art Program in 2013.

N.L.: I find this all so inspiring. I’m very impressed with what has been accomplished here.

Bestock: The fact that we’re a community development organization involved in low income housing and we went through the recession of 2008, the challenges that followed, are still on our feet, and are improving is a success story we’re proud of. One of the challenges is figuring out how to tell that story, so hearing from you is great. We’re working on our annual report right now, looking to share our successes with the community and get folks to reinvest in the work that we’re doing.

N.L.: What advice do you have for other communities who might want to do something like this in a vacant building?

Bestock: Build community support!  I think what has made Youngstown so successful is the exhaustive work that leaders from the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association (DNDA) put in to engage and mobilize the local community around the project at its inception.  Millions of dollars were raised, and the entire neighborhood was invited to give input and be a part of the project. Community partners, including local government and businesses, as well as founding tenants of the new center, helped fuel and steer the project.

Don't assume what the community wants. Ask them!  DNDA has worked extensively with the city, using the Delridge neighborhood plan and door-to-door canvassing of local residents, to help select services that would be offered at Youngstown.

Create dynamic spaces!  We're able to offer space for ANY kind of class, performance, or event, and that adaptability has helped us maintain a workable earned-income model, and help keep our spaces lively with community activity.

N.L.: It sounds like a very interesting job.

Bestock: Never a dull moment! I get to do many things here: changing lightbulbs, balancing budgets, and everything in between.

 

Youth enrolled in Youngstown's Rock School programming, rehearsing their band in the South Classroom.

 

Neighborhood Life thanks David Bestock for a great interview as well as the inspiration and advice he shared. May the future be bright for Youngstown.

 

For more information, contact:

David Bestock

Director, Youngstown Cultural Arts Center

Delridge Neighborhoods Development Assn.

4408 Delridge Way SW

Seattle, WA 98106

Phone: (206) 935-2999

 

DNDA Board Member Erin MacCoy, resident Annie Von Essen, and Youngstown Director, David Bestock, enjoy lunch together at the 2013 Youngstown Open House.

 

 

Links:

Youngstown Cultural Arts Center

Youngstown on Facebook

VIDEO of Mural Project

Delridge Neighborhood Development Association (DNDA)

The Southwest Seattle Historical Society

 

 

 

 

 

Attendees at the center's 8th birthday party enjoy the beer garden between performances.

 

 

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