At the corner of 11th Street and Macdonald Avenue in the East Bay city of Richmond stands the Winters Building, a tired grande dame whose ornate Renaissance and Baroque upper stories are at odds with its stark ground floor, which has been cemented over as if braced for war.
And war, in a way, it has been. The Winters Building is in the center of an area known as the Iron Triangle—named for three rail lines that bound it—which has had the dubious distinction of being the most violent neighborhood in the second-most dangerous city in California, based on recent FBI statistics.
For the past twenty-three years, the building also has been home to the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts.
Born in 1968 in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the ensuing riots, the Center has drawn in the richly varied cultures of the surrounding streets—African American, South American, Southeast Asian, and Euro-American—and used them to give meaning to the lives of the young people who live there.
Now, with the help of $2.5 million in grants from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Winters Building will be restored to a beauty unlike anything it has seen since 1921, when an immigrant from an earlier generation, the German-born Adolph Winters, commissioned its construction as a dance hall, flower shop, and music store. For Hewlett’s Performing Arts Program, the grant is part of a long-term commitment to preserve and expand permanent performance and rehearsal space in the Bay Area.
The $12 million renovation, funded through a variety of public and private sources, will create two new 200-seat theaters and an additional 5,000 square feet of rehearsal and teaching space, among other amenities. It also will restore the building’s exterior to its original glory, reinstalling the first-floor windows all around, transforming it from bunker to beacon for the surrounding neighborhood.
“We were never about the building,” says Jordan Simmons, 53, the Center’s artistic director and soul. “But we realized we were the only civic space left downtown. This will be a gathering place for the neighborhood and will carry the Center through the next fifty years of students.”
Culture From the Neighborhood, For the Neighborhood
Each year, informed by the cultures of the surrounding neighborhood, the Center’s fifty-eight faculty members offer first-rate instruction in music, dance, theater, and new media to about 2,000 students at the Center’s 11th Street facility, and through a variety of public school-based programs throughout the city. The Center reaches another 20,000 youth and families through annual recitals, performances, and requested presentations.
Its four-year Diploma Program, which offers more intensive instruction to sixty students (grades seven through twelve), supplies a steady stream of talent to its nine wildly varied ensemble companies, ranging from West African music and dance, to chamber music, to Laotian and Mien dance and tonal singing, to American jazz, to name but some. The ensembles give back to the community in the form of fifty to sixty performances a year, further extending their impact, as well as engaging the young artists in a culturally based social activism.
Congressman George Miller (D-CA, 7th District), whose district includes the Iron Triangle, recently applauded the renovation plans and said that the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts has been an anchor of hope and possibility for the hard-bitten neighborhood for generations.
“The East Bay Center is one of the best kept secrets in Richmond,” said Rep. Miller. “Year after year, it has provided young people and the community with so many opportunities and shown what is possible—even with relatively modest resources—when a cultural center grows organically from the community. This renovation might well be a linchpin for a broader revival in a neighborhood that has had a shortage of good news.”
Seen another way, the Center is also one story of what became of the much-caricatured idealism and activism of the 1960s, as Artistic Director Simmons—who grew up in Richmond and was among the first youngsters to take lessons at the Center—is quick to tell you.
By then, the Iron Triangle and Richmond, which boomed as a ship-building town during World War II, were well into the kind of long, slow decline that afflicted many of America’s downtowns as suburbs boomed and shopping malls appeared. Only worse. Today, almost 90 percent of the Center’s families and audiences come from either low- or very low-income backgrounds.
Young Artists Learn What Community Is
After leaving the neighborhood to study at Reed College in Oregon, Simmons received an offer to help run the Center not long after graduation. He never left.
“It’s important to tell you this is not who we serve; it’s who we are,” says Simmons of the students who stream into the building’s warren of practice rooms most weekday afternoons. “And we don’t have to talk about equality and respect because we are living it.”
He talks of the common experience of kids coming to the Center to study the music and dance of their own cultures and gradually getting pulled into the orbit of the others: the young jazz drummers tuning into African polyrhythms, or those who came for Mexican regional music and dance and stay for Trinidadian steel pan. The permutations seem endless.
“We want youth to learn about themselves, be strong enough to go out of themselves to learn about other people and cultures—then return to themselves,” he says. “Then they will be able to go into new situations without fear. We don’t say, ‘Love other people.’ We say, ‘Learn about these other cultures, and you decide what your community is about.’
“It doesn’t compute in this society that a place like this exists and flourishes,” says Simmons, whose programs also draw more affluent students from nearby Berkeley. “We have kids here from a lot of different backgrounds who work together for years.”
Over time, he has added an underlying, evolving approach to the Center’s work, with the faculty exploring elements of rhythm, language, and composition that exist across all cultural forms. Teaching these universals helps students see the common humanity beneath specific cultural practices.
“We believe this combination of practice leads to a fuller understanding of human capacity itself,’’ Simmons says. “We’re not here to push aside the canon but to show that the canon is wide. Once you understand that, you’re free. And you discover your gift, and discover the gifts of human beings, and can empathize.
“For us the question is, What does it take for a young person in America today to realize artistic depth and societal engagement?”
Keeping the Cross-Cultural Stew Brewing
On a recent late afternoon in the Winters Building, some of the answer emerges. Here a knot of teenagers with horns sits in a tiny darkened room, watching a black-and-white Truffaut film with the sound off and improvising a sound track. There, one Caucasian girl and two Latinas in their mid-teens practice classical violin. Down the hall, a theater group researches material for an original play based on the life of the American folk legend John Henry.
Simmons seems forever putting things together—people, performances, cultures—a chef who keeps his cross-cultural stew bubbling. He suggests to the teacher of the student horn players that they create a short piece as the opening act for the John Henry play. The instructor responds with the thought that the young improvisers could try their skills on a sound track for a short silent film by the comedian Buster Keaton.
C. K. Ladzekpo, the former director of the national music and dance ensemble of Ghana, who these days divides his time between teaching at the Center and at the University of California, Berkeley, describes the Center this way: “There’s a spirit of volunteerism here that animates the place. It’s a desire to be part of the life cycle of the community.”
But Antoine Hunter, a 1995 graduate of the Center and today the instructor of its Iron Triangle Urban Ballet, a blend of urban street dance, modern jazz, and ballet, may come closer to the students’ experience: “It’s simple. This is the place where you come to discover your super powers.’’