Thursday morning. 11AM. Bob Marley is blasting, the air is warm and wet with chlorine. I’m looking fly in my new black and white swim dress about to get my cardio on with 50 strangers. It’s time for deep water aerobics at the recently remodeled Rainier Beach Community Center (RBCC).
I live in the 98118 and what they say is true, we really are an eclectic microcosm of the world. The last time I went to a water aerobics class was in Arizona. My mom and I were the only black people in the pool and I wondered if we were going have to have to flash our passports to keep from being deported. Thankfully, my experience at RBCC was the complete opposite. Waving their arm floaties beside me were men and women of various ages, ethnicities, nationalities, and body shapes. Diversity personified.
That got me thinking about Seattle and how segregated it can sometimes feel. While we coexist near one another, we don’t often mix. This made me wonder what Rainier Beach Community Center is doing right. Not only were we in these classes sweating next to each other, the locker room afterwards was filled with strangers in various states of dress actually chatting with one another as though somehow we had found a magical antidote to the Seattle Freeze.
“I see a lot of interactions with diversity. And of course having a brand new center it is beautiful to be there,” says Nelson Lopez, a community health advocate with Neighborcare for the last eight years. “I think it helps not just minorities, but people of any ages from toddlers to teens to retired or older adults. There is always something at the center for everybody.”
Located just a few blocks away, Neighborcare is one of many organizations affiliated with the community center. Neighborcare has created a program to subsidize the pool for patients in need of more physical activity.
“I think the success comes from providing ample programs that reflect the needs of the community,” adds Tiffany Bigham of Rec Tech. Rec Tech provides a free computer lab housed at the community center where anyone can use the computer with no restricted sites, no time limits, and free printing. “Basically it’s free and benefiting the needs of what the community said they would like to see,” explains Bigham. In addition to access to the computer lab, Rec Tech provides daily tutoring for kids between 4-5pm and continuing education courses for adults.
The Center also hosts a variety of activities: drop-in basketball, water classes for all ages and abilities, tots’ classes, Officer Cookie’s chess club, marching band, Zumba, African dance, the S.E. Youth Orchestra, a Youth Speaks weekly writing circle and more.
“It started out as a race and social justice issue, about delivering services out of a facility to a community that really needs services,“ recounts Christopher Williams, Acting Director of Seattle Parks and Recreation. “We’ve been working on a new community center since at least 2004, 2005 when we knew the school district was going to demolish the old school and build a new school next door.”
In 2008, during the recession, Williams approached then-mayor Michael McGinn with the idea of debt financing the development of the new Community Center. Now the 20 million dollar facility is being paid for partially through revenue generated from the pool.
“This is just a kid-rich neighborhood. There is a lot of need for and a lot of demand for youth programming here. In consciousness we just didn’t feel like we could continue to meet that demand in a 50-year-old building that was hardly adequate to serve the most diverse neighborhood in the city, “ explains Williams.
The activists of Got Green also viewed the community center as a social justice issue. “There was this missed opportunity during the time when it was being reconstructed about how the city spending in construction could have created jobs,” says Michael Woo, Founder of Got Green. Woo described the two main issues as being who would build the center and who would run it.
The City approached the YMCA about taking over day-to-day operations.
While community activists were ultimately unable to influence the construction process, their voices were heard when it came to the YMCA. “Not only did the Y not have a good presence, but people were worried about the fee structure for the use of the facility,” says Woo. “It didn’t happen because the community spoke up.” Part of the concern was for the displacement of city employees who had previously worked at the community center. Residents wanted to make sure they got their jobs back.
According to Martha Winther, Recreation Center Coordinator, from before and after the remodel, at least 30% of the staff live in Rainier Beach and even more in nearby sound end communities. The staff demographics, like the population making use of the center reflect the diversity of the neighborhood.
“Of course we want to be welcoming to everybody,” says Winther explaining the fee structures and scholarships available to reach out to the economically disadvantaged in the community. “Some of the things we’ve done intentionally are that we have our women’s only swim on Sundays and that’s not only for the Muslim population but for the Orthodox Jews.”
The reoccurring theme for what is working and why so many people are loving this community center is that despite the issues with the construction process, the Center itself is giving the community what it wants. What we want is a place to hang out and enjoy all kinds of activities with our neighbors.
For anyone interested in providing feedback or suggestions for the next evolution of the space, there is a Rainier Beach Community Center Advisory Council open to the public that meets on the 2nd Tuesday of every month at RBCC at 6:30PM.