When Southside Community Center – one of the city’s oldest and most storied community institutions – decided against a City Hall-assisted effort to take the reins of the center, hire a new executive director and set off on a mission to “restore faith” in the organization, as then-interim director Nia Nunn told the Ithaca Times that summer of 2016, the announcement was seen as big news.
The more than 80-year-old center, after all, has one of the most monumental legacies of any institution in the city outside of Cornell (what other organization in this city can claim a visit from Eleanor Roosevelt?) and the place itself, once a modest operation run by the all-black Francis Harper Women’s Club out of a single family home on Plain Street in the segregated city of the early 20th century, has long standing as a bastion of black culture that has sought to maintain itself in the decidedly diverse – if not majorly white – confines of these six square miles.
Though the maintenance of its building and much of its budget comes from city coffers, independence had long been a defining mark of the organization back to the year $220 was set aside to help fund the building’s completion in 1938. (For $1, the story goes, it was agreed that as long as the building continued to serve the community, Southside could always remain independent.)
Even with fiscal and organizational issues plaguing the place for several years, the organization’s leadership decided to, rather than fully consolidate as a city department similar to the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, attempt to work things out on their own. In August 2016, its board chose the late Leon Lawrence to be the next director for the center, the places third director in as many years. The organization looked to rework its programming, to serve not only its traditional role as a neighborhood organization but in a capacity serving all ages, citywide. The intent then, as Lawrence told The Ithaca Journal that summer, was to refocus Southside on where its inefficiencies lay, how it could expand its reach beyond the neighborhood and, ultimately, how it could continue to serve its historic mission: as an independent center – culturally and socially – for the city’s black community.
Lawrence, who sadly passed away this past January, wasn’t around as long as the community hoped. But he, as well as those who had dedicated countless hours of their lives to the center’s mission, had a vision to work from.
It was a good thing, then, that the center’s new leadership were already well-versed in the greatest – and not so great – aspects of operations at Southside.
Longtime volunteers – including Nunn and then-deputy director Thia Harriett – put themselves to work on this new focus, wearing a number of different hats to try and return the place to a place of stability. That same August, Nydia Blas, having wrapped up her Master’s Degree in Photography at Syracuse University just months prior, stepped up to become the center’s Visual Media Arts Director, lending her artistic talents as a point of inspiration for a number of children at the center to discover their own unique vision of the world.
Just a few months later, Blas was running the place.
“It has been an absolutely vibrant year,” Nunn said with a smile this past Sunday in the cramped but busy corner office of the facility.
The last time Nunn and this reporter had spoken on the record about this place, Southside was in a period of reassurance, its faithful but, albeit, disorganized staff working to “restore the faith” in the building and remind people of the facility’s origins and its pride. But it was also, Nunn said, a period of defending itself and reminding the public of its worth. On this day, the old bricks of 305 Plain Street seemed to echo once again with the voice it had once spoken in so strongly all those years ago.
At its first open house in a long time on Sunday, the walls of its old gymnasium were lined with posterboard displays touting the two dozen various programs the center’s modest staff provide throughout the year. Beside it, a massive community meal of beans, stewed greens and fall-off-the-bone chicken emanated a rich smell throughout the room as children laughed and played between the legs of several dozen cheerful adults, some alone while others milled about in groups – just another day at Southside.
For those who have lived in Ithaca for years, few might even realize how significant a change this old building has undergone in the past 11 months. But the differences, especially to those associated with this place for years, are practically night and day, even so from the enthusiasm seen in the middle of the decade that led some to proclaim the place as being in the midst of a “Southside Revival.”
Tradition isn’t something to take lightly at Southside.
From the wall of its gymnasium, a frowning portrait of Jerome “Brud” Holland – the first black football player at Cornell University to be named an All-American – looks over the kids at play during open gym, a fitting place of memorial for a man who once descended from the hill each week to teach the neighborhood kids how to play football. On the wall of its arts and crafts space – newly built this year – a portrait of Ithaca’s first black police officer, Levi Spaulding, hangs just feet away from an open space where, Nunn cheerfully tells, the first executive director of Southside Community Center, James L. Gibbs, used to sleep.
“I love taking people into this space to see images of our history, and the purpose of this space,” she says with a schoolteacher’s enthusiasm while leading a small tour of the building on Sunday.
As Nunn walks the compact, but efficiently organized floor plan of Southside, she’s quick to channel the ghosts that shaped this place; the stories of her childhood scrambling over a playground since sent to the junkyard, the faces people from Nelson Mandela to the late neighborhood staple that was Frances Eastman (who actually cared for Nunn and countless other children at Southside over the years) smiling down from the chipped, but vividly colored mural overlooking the new equipment. She’s quick with a story of the place remembered from her childhood, the tour seeming more like a visit to the home of a close friend rather than the leader of a nonprofit. Then again, it basically is.
“We wear multiple headwraps around here,” said Nunn. “We have this inside joke that it’s ‘garbage to grants’ for us here. We really do it all, whether it’s completing a report or writing a grant to mopping the floors, we just get it done. We do it. And I think that’s another way to describe why we’ve been successful and why we’ll continue to be.”
Every so often on the tour, the memories would accentuated with a plug for one of the center’s many programs, some old and some new: there’s the center’s twice-monthly kitchen and food pantry, which was once one of the few places the city’s black community could go for basic provisions. There’s the Unity Studio – a recording studio opened a number of years ago that has since, gone underutilized – that will be reopened soon, Nunn beaming as she envisions the possibilities that could come of the audio gear waiting to be set up around the room. There’s the gymnasium, which the center is currently fundraising for, that has been put to work often as a rental space this year and, for many teens, has served as a monthly place to dance and socialize in a scene that even parents have begun to take notice of. There’s a computer lab – busy even late on a Sunday afternoon – where kids can be tutored, organize events or simply hang out in a supportive environment for several hours at a time. The meeting space can even be offered for free, as an in-kind trade, if the organization taking advantage of the room has a mission aligning with the goals of Southside itself.
“If there’s a service to offer the community, there’s always space,” said Nunn.
But it’s what’s new here at the center that has people really excited.
There’s a murmur of a different type of Southside Revival this year. One of the biggest changes, its leadership will note, comes not only in a found-again, refocusing of enthusiasm around its mission, but in a sort of renaissance of identity: the start of a journey of discovery not only in the center’s tangible purpose, but in the emotional purpose it serves among the city’s black community.
The Southside neighborhood – like the rest of the city, Blas notes – has changed significantly from what it once was. The faces occupying the houses up and down Plain and Cleveland Streets are whiter, a consequence of the city’s rapid gentrification over the past two decades and the people the center once traditionally served – the largely black population of the immediate neighborhood – has since been pushed to the city’s outer fringes on West Hill, the Northside or even outside the city limits.
“People think that our constituents are sort of in this neighborhood and they’re not anymore,” said Blas. “Historically, it’s always been ‘Southside serves the Southside neighborhood.’ But people of color, people who have historically been in this neighborhood, people without resources who may be socioeconomically disadvantaged… they’ve all been pushed to the outskirts of town.”
Part of the new revival, both are quick to say, is a change in how they go about providing these services but also, in redefining the boundaries of what the black community in Ithaca really is: no longer a neighborhood bound by the border of Green Street, it seems, but a community dispersed from the southernmost reaches of town to the dormitories of Cornell’s North Campus in need of cohesion and a place of unity. This approach is evident in its new slogan, “Building black unity, and y’all can come too,” a mission for the center that goes beyond tutoring and gardening programs. Through initiatives like a writing project around the concept of blackness to hosting discussions on maintaining one’s self while navigating predominantly white spaces, the center has turned its focus on teaching its clients as well as the greater community the value of black identity.
Racial consciousness in Ithaca, Nunn notes, has become a visible and concerted effort in the community. You have groups like Talking Circles and efforts like the New Jim Crow community read, Nunn said, that have made a lot of progress toward building self-awareness among the community in how its members perceive and discuss the concept of race. But when it comes down to who the audience actually is, you’ll notice one thing about the crowd: the faces out there are predominantly white ones. Southside’s mission now, they say, is about spreading the experiences of black people both in a modern and historic context to not only reaffirm unity, but to preserve and discuss the idea of what blackness “really means” in a society where the concept of racial harmony – for many in the white community – has taken on a policy of colorblindness at best and ignorance at worst, rather than a recognition and respect of each other’s culture.
“That work is beautiful, amazing and great, it’s providing this sort of ‘Race 101,’” Nunn said. “But in places like this, we’re sort of ‘interrupting’ this sort of colorblind society that is often taught to black folks and other people of color… that’s what this writing project is an example of: Building black unity is like internally giving ourselves an opportunity to reflect on our relationship with blackness.”
Building that relationship with the physical space is an important part of the equation, a place where the community as a whole can gather to celebrate the center’s ideal of “unapologetic blackness,” as Nunn puts it: welcoming people to come learn about and engage with this idea within one of the few places in town that is a predominantly black community center. As the city and the political climate has changed, the center realized it needed to change as well. Last year it successfully raised funds for a new van, to connect people from all areas of the city to the house on Plain Street. Blas and Nunn have worked to develop even closer relationships to the colleges – especially important during several years of heightened racial tensions on both campuses – to better connect students to the larger community ready to welcome them in the city’s flats.
“Thinking about Cornell and some of the incidents that have happened there, I’ve made a point to reach out and say to the students that ‘you have a home in Southside,’” Blas said. “That tension, those issues and the political climate we’re in has made that connection even more special… it attracts them to the space.”
But the biggest thing for them, Blas said, is to operate a space to encourage and foster a new generation of leaders in the community, to nudge some of the youth who’d come up in the organization – as they had been – to step up into roles of greater responsibility needed to keep the center on the rise.
“As someone who has grown up in Ithaca and lived here my entire life, spending my time in spaces that are predominantly white is why it’s so important to have places like Southside,” Blas said. “When we’re talking about building unity from the inside, that’s what happens all the time here. There are people who are in here every day asking ‘what can I do to help?’ or ‘let me help do something.’ You can tell it’s building… there’s just this love here.”
Follow Nick Reynolds on Twitter @Nickthaca